A divorce is one of the most personal and private things you will ever deal with in your life. The details of your divorce are most certainly things you do not want to be made public. Your privacy can be completely protected throughout your divorce.
Divorce and Public Records
In New York state, all the documents involved in a divorce are private and available only for the parties and their attorneys to view. They cannot be viewed or copied by anyone else, even the press.
- Conclusions of Law
- Findings of Fact
- Judgment of Dissolution
- Pleadings (such as the Summons and Verified Complaint)
- Written Separation Agreement or Memorandum
These documents are sealed from public access for 100 years.
A divorce trial in a New York courtroom is an open proceeding that anyone can attend. However, your attorney can request that the proceeding be closed. The statute requires that the judge must determine that it is in the public interest to close the proceeding from the public. Practically speaking, if your attorney requests this, it is usually granted.
When the proceeding is closed to the public, the only people in the courtroom will be:
- Their attorneys
- The parties
- The judge
- The court reporter
- The bailiff or members of security as needed
- Court staff such as the judge’s law clerk or secretary as needed
The evidence presented at the trial is also sealed from public viewing.
Records can be unsealed if the information in them is applicable to another lawsuit, and then only the relevant information is unsealed and made available for that case. An example of this occurred in Kodsi v. Gee. That case was a malpractice action against one of the couple’s attorneys, and an important issue was whether or not an uncontested divorce was granted to the couple. In that situation, the court held that the divorce could be unsealed to provide that information.
Another example occurred in Klipper v. Liberty Helicopters, where the plaintiff sued for personal injury and tried to claim lost wages. The court allowed the defendant to access financial records from the divorce to determine if wages were, in fact, lost. In general, it would be extremely rare for a divorce case to be unsealed.
What is Public?
If the documents, testimony, and evidence are all sealed, you may wonder what, if anything, still remains public? The certificate of dissolution is a public record that anyone can search and read, but only the parties and their attorneys can request copies of it.
- Attorney names
- County and court issuing the divorce
- Date of divorce
- Date of marriage
- Date of separation
- Dates of birth
- Education level
- Legal grounds for divorce
- Number of children
- Number of previous marriages and how they ended (death, divorce, annulment)
- Sex (this is optional)
- The names of the parties
- Their addresses
- Type of decree (divorce or annulment)
The names of the parties also remain public unless one of the attorneys requests that they be made confidential.
Other Privacy Concerns
Even if your trial is closed to the public, you may have concerns about information from your case being leaked. There is always the possibility that unscrupulous people within the court system could leak information about the details of the case. There’s nothing the court or your attorney can do to prevent this from happening if your case is handled through the court system.
The best way to avoid this is to hire a private judge. A private judge is usually a retired judge or a retired, extremely experienced matrimonial attorney who arbitrates the case. Both you and your spouse must agree to arbitrate and accept the private judge’s decision in the case instead of going through the state court system. The case is heard privately, in private offices or conference rooms. Records are kept and seen just by the private judge and their small staff. Very few people have knowledge of or access to the records and the proceedings.
The case is handled much like a traditional litigated divorce trial would be, with evidence, witnesses, and testimony. However, the attorneys can agree to a slightly less formal proceeding and may agree in advance to a modified set of rules if they believe it will be advantageous. Both parties can fully make their case and present their evidence. The private judge then makes a ruling.
None of the evidence, documents, or testimony in the case are transferred to the public court system. Instead, the judge’s ruling becomes the accepted settlement of the case, and that alone is submitted to the court, where it is sealed from public view. The certificate of dissolution becomes public record.
Privacy concerns are an important issue in a high-profile divorce. It is important to work with a law firm that understands your concerns and actively works to protect the confidential nature of your divorce.