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Divorce Records – Are They Always Public, and How do I Find Them?

Divorce records, which include the divorce certificate and divorce decree, are typically public. At minimum, anyone searching for a divorce record will be able to find out whether two individuals are divorced. However, if records are sealed, anyone who is not a party to the case will be unable to see the details of the records.

Divorces, like marriages, are granted according to rules that vary from state to state, and are filed in a particular county. To find a divorce record, you need to know where the divorce in question was or will be completed.

What types of divorce documents/records are public

Normally, you can receive a copy of the divorce decree or certificate for any individual. If you are not one of the parties in the divorce, you may only be able to obtain an “informational” copy of the decree, rather than an official or certified copy. To obtain the divorce decree or certificate or confirmation that such documents exist, the most direct solution is to locate the clerk’s office for the court that handled the case, and submit an electronic or hard copy request to that office.

If you know the state in which the divorce was granted, but not the county or court, you can also make the request through the responsible state agency, which varies from state to state (for example, in Washington State divorce records are kept by the Department of Health, while in New Hampshire they are kept by the Department of State’s Division of Vital Records Administration). Departments typically charge a fee of $10-20 to confirm whether records are available and/or to provide copies.

However, a complete file of divorce records also includes the initial complaint or motion for divorce, as well as other motions and documents filed in the court during the case. Many states, such as New Jersey, make public all documents filed in the case. Documents beyond the final decree or certificate may be obtained by contacting the court clerk directly, not the responsible state agency.

What types of divorce documents are sealed

On the other hand, some states seal divorce records as a matter of course; for example, New York State seals all divorce records for a period of 100 years after the divorce. Many other states automatically seal records that reveal financial information, psychological evaluations, paternity issues, or abuse, especially child abuse.

This does not necessarily mean that the entire record of the divorce is sealed; it is possible to seal only the documents in the record that reveal sensitive information. And there is always some public certificate or decree showing that the individuals have divorced, even if the other contents of the file are sealed.

If you are in the middle of a divorce case, you may be able to file documents with the court and seal them right away. You must be able to justify the request to seal records based on state law.

How to request sealing of divorce records

To request that your divorce records be sealed, go to the court that has jurisdiction over divorces in the area – the same one that handled or is handling your divorce. This may be a family court or a district court. You must file a motion to seal the records, which typically requires a notarized affidavit, and indicates which records you want to seal. You do not have to request to seal the entire divorce record; you may choose to ask to seal only part of the record or a particular document.

Because the judicial system of the United States is based on the principle of open records and information, you may increase your chances of success by moving to seal only those documents containing proprietary, private, or sensitive information, such as financial details, psychological evaluations, or a description or disclosure of abuse.

You and your former or soon-to-be-former spouse may jointly file the motion, but this does not necessarily increase the odds of your motion being granted. The judge will consider your motion and either grant or deny it, for all or parts of the records you request to be sealed.

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