Unless your last name ends in the word “Kardashian” you’re probably not a big fan of making a public scandal out of your private life. Like it or not, though, your divorce records will be public. Because of that, it’s worth investing some time and energy into making sure that those public divorce records aren’t scandalous.
Why Your Public Divorce Records Matter
Thinking about “the public record” when you’re in the middle of a divorce isn’t easy. Your head is already spinning, your heart is shredded, and your entire world is falling apart. Keeping your private life out of public divorce records is just not your #1 priority.
Yet, it matters – and not just if you ever plan on running for public office.
Employers today routinely run background checks on job applicants. While you may think that a potential employer clearly won’t care about your past marital history, if that history includes allegations of domestic abuse, adultery, alcoholism, or addiction, you better think again.
Even if you are a model citizen, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to worry about anything in your divorce. Contested divorces can get ugly very fast. People in divorce cases often say things that are “open to interpretation.” (In other words, they are usually less than 100% true!)
But My Spouse Lied!
Hopefully, if your spouse lies about you in court, you will be able to prove your innocence. But sometimes the truth is hard to prove in court. Plus, even if you do prove you did nothing wrong, that doesn’t mean that years later the court record of what happened will be clear.
Often, what happens in court is that one party files a petition claiming that his/her spouse did all kinds of horrible things. Before the judge rules on the petition, the case is settled. So the only thing in the court file is the document with all of the horrible allegations in it. No one ever knows whether the allegations were actually true or not.
Or maybe the judge actually held a hearing and found that the allegations against you were untrue. In all likelihood, the judge will enter an order that simply says, “Petition denied.” It may not say that you did nothing wrong.
True, most people understand that, just because somebody’s ex filed court papers claiming that they were guilty of all kinds of terrible things, that doesn’t mean that they actually did any of them. But, employers are human. Once they see those kinds of allegations against you in public divorce records, the seeds of doubt have been planted.
You can’t “un-know” information once it’s in your head.
Are All Divorce Records Public Information?
Courts in the United States are open to the public. Divorce records are public information. Anyone can look at any court file they want, usually whenever they want to look at it.
In the past, that may not have mattered much. Like the Ark of the Covenant that Indiana Jones buried in a government warehouse, finding court documents (especially old court documents) used to be a chore.
Today, though, that has changed.
In today’s digital, hyper-connected world, it is relatively simple for anyone to access someone’s divorce court records. If you’re not technologically savvy enough to do it yourself, for under $100 you can hire an agency to do a background check on whoever you want.
If you value your privacy at all (or if you just prefer not to air your dirty laundry in public) what are you supposed to do? How can you keep your private life, private?
2 ways to Keep Your Private Life Out of Public Divorce Records
The problem with divorce is that the only one who can divorce you is a judge. That means that, if you want to end your marriage, at some point you (or your lawyer) has to go to court to do it. You have no other choice.
Since every document you file in court automatically becomes a public record, it might seem that there is no way you can keep your divorce private. To a certain extent, that’s true. No matter who you are, or what you do, if you get divorced, there will be a record of your divorce in court.
But, there is a big difference between filing standard documents with simple “boilerplate” language, and filing motion after motion full of allegations about how your spouse is an alcoholic, or abusive, or has done some other horrible thing to you or your kids.
Standard documents will tell people that you got divorced. But that’s the only thing people will know when they look at them. On the other hand, if your divorce records contain mountains of detailed, ugly, contested divorce documents they will probably convey a whole lot more information than just “this person got divorced!”
So, how can you control your public divorce records? There are two primary ways:
1. Ask the Court to put your documents under seal.
Filing documents “under seal” is a procedure for keeping sensitive or confidential information out of the public record. While this may sound like the perfect way for you to keep your divorce information private, the truth is that before you can do this, you have to get permission from a judge. Unless you happen to be wealthy, well-known or well-connected, persuading a judge to seal your divorce court records is not likely to be easy.
Judges are responsible for maintaining “the public record.” Most judges take that responsibility very seriously. So, for most average folks, getting their divorce put under seal is just not going to happen.
2. Stay out of court.
Staying out of court is the best way to maintain your privacy and keep control over your personal information. If you settle your divorce issues with your spouse outside of court, then the documents you file in court can be fairly “vanilla.” They will contain the information that they absolutely need to contain for legal purposes, and nothing more.
If you and your spouse agree, you can also ask a judge to remove truly sensitive and personal information (especially financial account information, or information that could negatively affect your children) from the court file. Even if you are not rich or famous, a judge is usually willing to grant this kind of limited request to keep certain information private. (You may also be able to ask the judge to only incorporate your entire marital settlement agreement into your judgment by reference. That will keep the entire document out of the public record.)
It’s All About What You Know
No matter who you are, you have the power to keep most of your divorce information private. But, like so many other things in divorce, doing so is a choice. The only one who can make that choice is you.
If you want to keep your private life out of the public record, you have to take the steps you need to take to do so. For most people, that means staying out of court.
What’s more, you need to stay out of court from the very beginning of your divorce. Once you have filed reams of paperwork in court, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to get permission to take those documents out of the court file.
Do you care whether your divorce records become public information? Maybe you do. Maybe you don’t. What’s important is that you take the time to answer that question before you get divorced.
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