People contemplating divorce often struggle with how and when it may become known to others. And while divorce obviously does not carry the stigma that it once did, there are many people who simply value their privacy. In addition, your divorce involves far more than your relationship status – it requires extensive financial disclosures, detailed parenting plans, and other documents that discuss almost every aspect of your life. As a result, people commonly ask whether their divorce will be a matter of public record the first time they meet with a divorce lawyer.
Your Divorce Will Be Public Record in Washington State
In general, divorce case records in Washington State are a public records. As a result, the court entries on the docket, as well as pleadings and orders filed in your case may be reviewed by others, regardless of why they want to see it – there is no requirement that they be a party to your divorce or have any legitimate purpose.
However, there are a number of exceptions. You will want to discuss with your family law lawyer specifically what parts of your divorce file will be open to view in the public record and what can be done to protect sensitive information.
First of all, there are certain types of information that are normally put into a sealed part of the file that the court can access but the public cannot.
There is a document called the Confidential Information Form (CIF) that contains basic personal information on the parties such as social security numbers, dates of birth, addresses, phone numbers, and employers.
It used to be that this kind of information would be placed directly in some other documents, such as child support orders. However, some years ago it was realized that this created privacy issues and the CIF was developed to hold those bits of information instead.
Some other records can also be filed in the sealed section of the file by attaching them to a sealed documents cover sheet. This includes many primary financial source documents, health care records, and some detailed records gathered as part of a parenting evaluation.
If you have sensitive information that you are worried about, an experienced divorce lawyer can discuss what options you may have when it comes to keeping your personal information private.
What Does Appear in The Public Record about My Divorce?
On the other hand, the motions and declarations that are filed in your case are generally open to public view. So your statements about your spouse, your spouse’s statements about you, statements about your children, statements about your finances, statements about domestic violence, and a multitude of other unproven or baseless accusations will all be there for anyone to read. The court orders about those matters will also be in public view.
Clients often ask if their divorce file can be sealed. Unfortunately, the court has very little ability to order those kinds of documents to be sealed. It used to be that the court had a good bit more discretion about sealing sensitive documents, but a court case a few years ago severely limited that power.
High-profile couples or people who simply value their privacy should give serious consideration to what it may mean to have their personal information available to the public before they file for divorce. A divorce lawyer who has experience in handling discreet divorces and separations can provide valuable guidance on these matters.
How Can I Limit Public Information about My Divorce?
One way to limit the exposure of that kind of information is to engage in an out-of-court dispute resolution process. Whether that is arbitration (hiring a private judge), mediation (a third-party mediator helps the two of you work towards agreement), or collaboration (a professional team helps the two of you work towards the best agreement you can come up with), by avoiding contested, public, court hearings, you avoid filing papers for those hearings that will end up in the public record.
If alternative dispute resolution is not an option, some creative lawyering may limit the amount of sensitive information available to the public if your divorce must proceed through the courts. The final settlement agreement can also contain a good deal of sensitive information about you, as among other things it details the division of property and debts between the two of you. Fortunately, those details do not need to be put into the final Decree of Dissolution itself. They can be placed into a Separation Contract that is not filed with the court, and is only generally referenced in the Decree.
If you are worried about the information in your case that may be available to the public, you need to carefully consider your options. An experienced divorce lawyer can explain the advantages and disadvantages of each and which may be the best means in your case for protecting your privacy.
Prenuptial and Postnuptial Agreements
Another way to deal with this is by entering into a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement before you are contemplating divorce. While pre- and postnuptial agreements cannot address child custody and child support matters, they can cover most other matters that are dealt with in a divorce, thereby limiting the amount of information that is potentially disclosed to the public. Furthermore, your pre- or postnuptial agreement may require that the parties at least attempt arbitration or mediation before proceeding to litigation.
Discuss Your Privacy Concerns with a Divorce Lawyer from Seattle Divorce Services Today
The prospect of broadcasting your personal life to the world can seem terrifying. Fortunately, you have options. Seasoned legal counsel can help you protect your privacy while also helping you overcome the other obstacles of the divorce process.
If you need help with your divorce, give us a call at 206-784-3049, or use the form on our website, to schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys. We only charge a minimal fee for the initial consultation and you can get a number of your questions answered at that time to help you decide how best to move ahead.