Generally, court proceedings are public matters. In the vast majority of jurisdictions, this includes divorce proceedings. This means that unless the court agrees to file divorce records under seal, filings in divorce proceedings become matters of public record. Exceptions to open court records exist including the identification of children and victims of sexual abuse, amongst others.
In most places, however, to protect divorce documents from being open to the public, one or both participants must ask the court to file records in the case under seal. When a court files divorce records under seal, confidential or sensitive information within those records remains private and doesn't become a matter of public record. Courts can order entire records or portions of them to be filed under seal.
The following is an overview of divorce records and privacy protections.
The Decision to File Divorce Records Under Seal
Courts don't take it upon themselves to file records pertaining to divorce under seal. Parties in a divorce must request that the court seal them. It will be up to the judge to decide whether or not to grant a motion to seal. To make this decision, courts weigh whether the damage to the party asking for privacy from public disclosure would outweigh the presumption that court records are open to public scrutiny, and whether the request to seal is narrowly tailored.
Reasons for Sealing Divorce Records
Commonly cited reasons to keep divorce filings under seal include:
Other requests to seal records of a divorce might seek to prevent exposure of false allegations which could libelously damage one's reputation. The exposure of merely embarrassing information, however, may not cause the type of harm courts require to seal court records from the public.
Public benefits of open records include transparency into court proceedings. Through access to court records, the public maintains its ability to see what happens in public courts, as well as what information drives a courts decision. Someone asking to seal divorce records must show that the damage they would suffer if the records in question were public outweighs the public's right to open court records.
Narrowly Tailored Requests to Seal Divorce Records
In addition to involving an important potential injury, a request to seal divorce records must be narrowly tailored and not seek to seal off more information than necessary. Courts agreeing to file divorce records under seal generally seal only as much information as required to protect the privacy interests in question. This can mean redacting portions of divorce filings instead of sealing entire documents.
Narrow requests to seal divorce records have a better chance than requests to seal all records in a case. Clearly stating the privacy concern and asking the court to redact or seal specific information often proves more effective than blanket requests to file the whole case under seal based on vaguely worded privacy concerns.
If the court issues an order to seal these records, it's a good idea to double check that all records which should be redacted or sealed actually get filed under seal.
Questions About Divorce Records and Privacy? Talk to an Attorney
Divorce is emotionally traumatic for all parties, but an experienced divorce attorney can guide you through the process to protect your privacy and ensure your financial security. Get in touch with a divorce attorney in your area with your concerns about divorce records and maintaining your privacy, or with any other questions about the divorce process.