Divorce is a personal and private decision. And yet it’s done in a public form — the courts. So how do you file for divorce without publishing all the details of your life and finances?
It’s helpful to learn what exactly about a divorce is private and what is public. What information can be found by your friends, colleagues, and children? How can anything about your divorce be kept private?
It all depends on the jurisdiction of the divorce — even down to the county level. States and counties that remain updated on technology will often allow anyone to log in to the county court clerk’s website and review anything that has been filed, ever. If a document has been filed, the document has usually been scanned and uploaded to the website.
The only filter between John Q. Public and a county’s divorce documents is usually a login registry. This is to ostensibly prevent computer programs from fishing through information for nefarious purposes. Still, most counties require an approved registration for a legitimate purpose before they allow people to review filed documents.
Counties and states that have not yet begun scanning their documents still keep files available at the circuit clerk’s office. Typically, the older files are stored off-site in a warehouse and must be ordered by name. In this antiquated system, there is not a registration requirement but the requester must usually “sign out” if the requester looks at a file and, therefore, leave a record of them having seen the file.
In a divorce, almost all financial documents are not required to be filed with the circuit clerk. They are instead referred to by reference.
A financial affidavit is a form every state requires. In this form, a divorce litigant fills out their entire financial history. The financial affidavit and its details are never kept in the public record and are merely mentioned as having been exchanged between the two parties.
The final documents settling the divorce can also be unfiled and merely mentioned by reference. The judgment for dissolution of marriage can be filed and declare the two parties divorced but merely reference the details of the divorce as being incorporated in the judgment for dissolution but not included. Therefore, the two parties will have copies of their marital settlement agreement and parenting plan — but no one else will.
If filed documents contain sensitive information that a litigant would not like published, that litigant can file a motion to seal the file. When a judge seals a file, no one may look at the file unless by order of a judge. In some jurisdictions, this is done on a perfunctory basis. In other jurisdictions, the judge will likely want to know what’s so special about this divorce that it should be sealed.
Finally, there is a way to get divorced that doesn’t involve going to court at all.
Celebrities famously get divorced all the time but we never see the details of their divorces. Why is that? It’s because celebrities enter into a binding arbitration with a former judge who will adjudicate everything privately and then simply enter a brief judgment of dissolution of marriage with all the details referenced but not published.
About the Author: Russell Knight is a divorce and family law attorney in Chicago, Illinois. For over a hundred family law articles about Illinois law, specifically, visit www.rdklegal.com.