Where to find Divorce Records
Divorce is the termination of the marital agreement between a couple and the end legally of their relationship as husband and wife. Whenever a divorce occurs, a record of the process is preserved. Divorce records consist of all documents relating to the separation of the involved parties. Most significantly, it includes the divorce decree, which contains the agreements between the couple on important issues relating to continuance of their relationship as parents, rights and obligations, financial arrangements and more. The divorce certificate also forms part of the record.
In 2019, a Virginia judge temporary sealed the divorce records of Stephen Moore, President Trump’s presumptive nominee for the Federal Reserve Board, during a legal dispute with his ex-wife.
Why Are Divorce Records Court Records?
Divorce proceedings are not considered vital records. Divorces are court proceedings, even when a divorce is uncontested or the parties adopted alternative dispute resolution (ADR) tools to achieve an amicable divorce, the divorce paperwork and the agreements reached must be filed in court. The judge then signs and issues the final divorce decree, which serves as the court’s complete and final order. A divorce decree makes the divorce legal, official and final. If the same people settle their disputes after the divorce decree has been issued and decide they no longer want to be divorced, they may not be able and might as well remarry.
Divorce decree and other documents relating to the divorce are kept by the courts in compliance to Federal and State laws and in the course of the court’s regular and administrative operations. All documents maintained by the courts form part of the documents accessible to the public as court records.
Who can Access Divorce Records?
Each state in the US has an open record law, some of which precede the Federal Freedom of Information Act. Under the laws, court records, including divorce records are generally public records. Public records are accessible to every person, (though occasionally at a cost), which may include news media, firms, corporations, professional organizations, and associations. However, some states place public information access restrictions on persons who are incarcerated, non-citizens of the US and persons below 18 or 21, depending on the age of majority is recognized by the state’s law.
In many States, certified divorce records are protected from the public. Divorce decrees contain information considered private, often concerning the divorced spouse's children, property and financial distribution information. Certain court documents such as the complaints filed by the petitioner, the response and evidence presented in court also contain the personal information of the parties.
The Court would usually only issue a divorce decree or provide access to confidential information relating to the divorce to:
Either of the divorced spouses.
An attorney representing either spouse with proof that they are truly representing the spouse and have the authority of the spouse to request the record.
A representative of either the divorced husband or wife. The representative must present a letter of authority signed by either spouse and certified by a notary public.
How to Find Divorce Records?
Finding divorce records can be challenging especially if the interested person does not have exact information of what state or county the divorce was filed, dates and names of parties. A helpful strategy may be to start from where the parties resided.
Under many States Laws, except for Alaska and Washington, a person may only file a divorce if they have been resident in that state for a minimum number of days, usually between 90 to 360 days. Nevada only requires 6 weeks.
When looking for divorce records an interested person may search online. Websites like Staterecords.org are often the first stop when searching for divorce records online. The applicant can take advantage of the wide coverage of states and counties records available and even when they are not able to provide certain confidential information or issue a divorce decree to the applicant, the applicant may be able to confirm vital information such as the case number, the parties to the divorce, the date the divorce certificate was issued, etc. These are information that would be crucial in searching the specific county or court for those records.
The applicant may search the County court’s website or the State’s archives for divorce papers online. For most requests, State’s archive websites, like Colorado’s may require the applicant to provide the case number for the divorce case. Also, information accessible may not include recent divorce records.
For instance, in California, to locate online divorce papers, the court would require the case number. The applicant may try to find the case number, by doing an index search on the court's Case Information Portal, or searching for either of the parties’ names. Information on the website may be limited to divorce cases in the last 10 years. If the applicant is unable to find the case number, the court may provide some assistance for a fee.
In New Jersey, divorce decrees are available through the Superior Court of New Jersey Records Center. And in Maryland, the actual decree of divorce can only be obtained from the Circuit Court that granted the decree.
Most States may allow persons to view some information relating to a specific divorce online but may not provide a copy of the divorce decree or certificate except the interested person approaches the office of Court Clerk of the relevant County – the county where the divorce was filed.
Manual search can be time-consuming and tedious and the search may yield no result if there is no specific information on the documents of interest. The court may also not have the specific records being requested. Some records are maintained on computers within the Clerk’s office in some Counties.
If the divorce was filed within the State of interest but not in the County approached, the clerk may be able to provide information on whether the state maintains a centralized record for divorces and how to conduct a search with State Office of Vital Statistics. The search may yield some limited results and general information on the divorced parties.
In 2019, Julie Wright Thompson accused Derwin Webb, a lawyer-turned-judge, of falsely leading her to believe that her divorce decree had been signed four years earlier. She discovered the error after being married for two years with another man.
Sealed Divorce Records
Depending on the state in which the divorce was filed, certain portions of the divorce records, like the legal paperwork and identifying information of the parties, divorce certificate are public and accessible to anyone who is interested and knows where and how to find the records.
However, a party or both parties to a divorce may request the court to seal the divorce records. Once sealed, divorce records become confidential information, protected from the public. The court may order specific portion or the whole court records on the divorce to be sealed, when the party or parties requesting the sealing have convinced the judge by showing unusual circumstances, providing sufficient justification and motion or application to seal, as provided under the law or applicable regulations.
Reasons for Sealing Divorce Records
A judge is more likely to agree with the application to seal divorce records or redact information relating to:
Minors - the court is always keen to shield the identity of children in a divorce.
Financial and proprietary information of a company.
Information that could make parties vulnerable and cause them harm when exposed to the public is protected, such as a person’s social security number.
Protection of the privacy of a victim of child abuse or domestic violence.
Mental illness or addiction of a spouse.
Preventing the exposure and spread of a false allegation to protect the concerned party from libelous damage to reputation.
Singer R. Kelly faced charges for sexual abuse in mid-2019. During the court proceedings, the prosecution petitioned, and succeeded, in unsealing his divorce record. His ex-wife, Andrea, has stated that the unsealing was requested to put pressure on Kelly to account for past child support payments.
How to Obtain Sealed Divorce Records?
Step 1: Establish a Compelling Reason
Identify and present to the court, crucial and sufficient reasons for requesting sealed divorce records to be open. The judge has to be convinced that there is justification for unsealing the records. Follow applicable laws and guidelines.
Step 2: Learn more about the Requirement
Understand the legal requirement for unsealing court records in the State of interest. Under the California court rules and procedures for sealed records, the court may unseal divorce records on its own volition or prompted by a petition to do so. A person requesting the court to unseal records must file a notice or petition to unseal and serve the same to all parties in the case.
Documents, motions, answers, and supporting documents relating to the request to unseal must be filed in a redacted or completely sealed version, in compliance with the sealing of the divorce documents. Once a divorce record is partially or fully sealed, all documents referring to it must be treated and documented in the same manner, with the same level of confidentiality as the sealed divorce records, until they are unsealed.
In states where no motion form is available to fill out, writing a formal letter to the Judge may be allowed, provided it contains an introduction of the applicant, the description of documents and reasons for the request to unseal and it is directed at the right court- (court where the records are sealed). The applicant may also consult with a lawyer or carry out some research on preparing a motion and citing legal authority and support for the request to unseal.
It may be necessary to notarize the petition/motion, as the legal backing for the request. Presenting a valid and acceptable identification is very important.
Step 3: Attend the Hearing
Once a motion is and notices are filed, the applicant will be advised on a date for hearing by the court clerk. At the hearing, the applicant will have a chance to make their position known and if there are no successful opposition, and the court is convinced, the court may issue an order to unseal after the hearing or at a later date.
Step 4: Review and Understand the Court Order
When the court gives an order to unseal divorce records, the order must state the reasons for unsealing and whether the records are fully or partially unsealed to the public or to a particular person.