Privacy issues in family law: Is my divorce public information?

The answer to this question is complicated in Florida. Certainly, the fact that the divorce happened is public information. The public can purchase a certificate of divorce from the Florida Department of Health. 

Of more concern to most people is public access to the final judgment of dissolution of marriage, which may incorporate a marital settlement agreement and parenting plan, or to other court orders, documents and transcripts of proceedings in the divorce. Of course, there is nothing more private than the circumstances of a marital breakdown.

People are also concerned about their children’s privacy, especially in a contentious proceeding or one in which mental health or embarrassing circumstances are involved. 

Government records are public unless exempt or confidential 

Broadly, Florida law allows public access and copying of public records, including court records. Florida courts have recognized that this public policy is strong and favors openness. However, under certain circumstances, the court may seal its own records from public view, despite a strong presumption of openness, even in a divorce case, which does not get special treatment. 

Florida courts have said that in dissolution of marriage proceedings, the wishes of the divorcing parties alone are not a sufficient basis for an order to seal the record. As the state Supreme Court said in Barron v. Florida Freedom Newspapers, Inc., divorcing spouses “are not entitled to a private proceeding.” 

Standard to seal 

The person seeking sealing has the burden to overcome the presumption of openness. Court records may be sealed only if necessary in six situations: 

  • For public policy reasons based in the constitution, laws, regulations or court cases
  • For protection of trade secrets
  • For protection of a “compelling governmental interest”
  • To obtain evidence
  • To protect “innocent third parties”
  • To prevent substantial injury to a person by release of information protected by a right to privacy or by common law 

The Barron case pointed out that in a divorce case, sealing could be based on the protection of children under the fifth basis and potentially pursuant to the last reason under a constitutional right to privacy.  

The court may not close a record if there is a “reasonable alternative … to accomplish the desired result …” 

Sensitive numbers 

Some people are concerned about the revelation of personal identifying or financial information through the records produced in divorce. Court personnel are to omit Social Security numbers and bank and credit card numbers from official records. Should a party discover such a number in an official court record, he or she may request its redaction. 

Anyone concerned about maintaining privacy in a divorce proceeding should speak with an experienced attorney about this complex and crucially important area of Florida law.

 

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