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Sealing Divorce Records in a Family Law Case

Sept. 15, 2016

Generally speaking, family law court proceedings tend to be a matter of public record. What this means is that unless the judge specifically agrees that the divorce records can be placed under seal, all filings and information in divorce proceedings become a matter of public record and therefore can be easily accessed by anybody who wants to find them. Naturally, the court already has exceptions to the concept of open court records, and this is typically found in cases that are used to protect the identity victims of abuse and minor children. Additionally, the courts already ensure that certain aspects of the case are filed under seal, including things like the party’s social security numbers.

Reasons for Sealing Records

Unfortunately, it is very easy for divorce proceedings to get ugly and when this happens, people involved in a family law case may want the divorce proceedings sealed so that they are not easily accessible to the general public. Sometimes, parties will agree, or one party will insist that the divorce records be filed under seal, whereby confidential or sensitive information must remain private and does not become a matter of public record. The judge can order the entire record of the family law proceedings, or just portions of them, to be filed under seal and will typically only do this if it is requested by one or both of the parties. Courts simply do not take it upon themselves to file divorce records under seal, since sensitive information is already filed under seal.

Petitioning the Court

If you have been involved in a family law court case and feel like there is a reason to seal your divorce records, I can petition the court to do so. It is important for you to know that most family law judges do not typically grant a motion to seal divorce records unless they can be convinced that not sealing the records could result in substantial harm to the party making the request. The judge will weigh out the damage to the party asking for privacy from public disclosure against the presumption that all court records should be open to public scrutiny, in order to reach a final determination on whether or not your family law case deserve to be sealed. As your family lawyer, I will need to present an argument that is narrowly tailored, citing specific reasons why more of the divorce records should be sealed, beyond the items already kept private under Pennsylvania law.

Seal Only What is Necessary

The most important thing to remember if you are asking the court to seal your family law court documents, above and beyond what the law already requires to be sealed, is that any request of this nature needs to be very specifically customized to your circumstances. In addition to laying out any potential injury to the party filing for sealed records, the request must not seek to seal off more information than is absolutely necessary. If the judge agrees that filed divorce records need to be placed under seal, they will only agree to seal away as much information as is absolutely required to protect the privacy of the party involved, in such a manner as to avoid injury to the party filing for the additional sealing.

Items Already Sealed

As you consider the need to file a petition, with the court, to have additional parts of the divorce sealed we should discuss what items are already filed under seal in accordance with Pennsylvania law. If your concerns pertain to any of these documents, there is no need to file for having the records sealed since I will already be filing them under a protective seal. These items include:

  1. Social Security Numbers;

  2. Financial Account Numbers, except an active financial account number, may be identified by the last four digits when the financial account is the subject of the case and cannot otherwise be identified;

  3. Driver License Numbers;

  4. State Identification (SID) Numbers;

  5. Minors' names and dates of birth except when a minor is charged as a defendant in a criminal; and

  6. Abuse victim's address and other contact information, including employer's name, address and work schedule, in family court actions, except for victim's name.

To discuss this in greater detail, call my office and schedule a consultation.