Filing for a divorce—even amicably—is tough. For some, emotions run high and tensions feel never-ending, and it can be overwhelming navigating a complex legal system and filing document after document until your divorce is finalized.
While going through this tumultuous process, you may not have had time to consider what happens to your divorce paperwork once it’s filed.
You may not know that most court documents are public record (meaning the public can read it) unless there is a specific reason why they shouldn’t be. This includes your divorce papers (and even your Separation Agreement, if filed).
In this post, find out what a public record is, what records are private, and if you are able to hide your divorce papers if you’d prefer that no one have access to them.
What is a Public Record?
A public record is a record that has been filed with a public office. They are documents that must be retained by institutions and made available to the public, meaning any person can inspect, examine, and copy these materials regardless of the purpose. This obligation often doesn’t apply to insignificant pieces of paper, like a voicemail or an initial draft.
Public record applies to government, law, business, and more. Plenty of institutions are required to make certain documents accessible in an effort to be transparent.
Sometimes, the only thing stopping people from reading whatever court-filed document they want to read is that they do not know how to access them and, when they do find them, the expense. But it’s easier—and cheaper—than you might think.
As of 1999, cases are held by the courts electronically and are accessible through the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) service.
Cases before 1999 can be accessed at the court where they were filed or at a Federal Records Center.
In short, with a small fee per document and an additional charge per page, just about anyone can read your “confidential” divorce documents.
Which Divorce Documents are Not Public Record?
Many filed divorce documents are public record, but there are times when certain documents should not be accessible to the public.
Sometimes a court matter involves a sensitive issue, and the records could be harmful if made public. In such situations, the court might “seal” the court documents, including the court transcript or any filed documents. A sealed record can only be viewed by obtaining a court order.
Courts might agree to seal divorces that deal with children, domestic violence, private identification numbers or information, or propriety business information. They might also seal documents with false allegations to prevent the spread of misinformation.
How to Get Your Record Sealed
Generally, a court won’t seal any documents without a request, and even if you request it, the court could say no if they don’t think it’s necessary.
For example, usually a court won’t seal information for inconsequential reasons like personal embarrassment. This means you might want to avoid writing a tell-all statement in your divorce papers unless the information clearly supports your claim.
However, if you want your divorce documents sealed, you should, at the very least, try by filing a motion.
With a valid reason as to why this document could be detrimental to you or others, the courts may oblige.
Sometimes, asking to redact a portion of your divorce papers as opposed to all the documents filed in one case is an easier request for the courts to accommodate. So, if necessary, try your luck with a lesser inquiry.
In some states, you may be able to ask the judge to waive court filing requirements, which means your confidential information won’t be accessible to the public because it wasn’t filed with an institution that’s required to keep its records.
Knowing Your Divorce Papers Are Public
The headache of divorce can worsen with the thought that your friends and family are privy to your confidential information, which is why it’s important you know what public records are, which records are sealed, and how you can seal your records (if you’re eligible).
Be sure to make the right decisions about what to include as evidence in your divorce and, if you need to include sensitive information, it might not be a bad idea to take the necessary steps and attempt to seal it, even if your request is unsuccessful.