Sealing Divorce Records

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photos-divorce-papers-image25772703 In follow-up to the now famous “one-day” Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton divorce, multiple news outlets have been reporting that the Judge who sealed the country superstars’ divorce file has been criticized for doing same.  Their divorce happened in Oklahoma, but many other jurisdictions have the option to seal court records.

You might be wondering what it means to “seal’ the records.  Usually this means that specific personal information is redacted from the filing, and certain (or all) documents are made unavailable to the general public.  For instance, in Illinois, it is part of the Illinois Supreme Court Rules that certain personal identity information is filed under seal, such as birthdays, for example.  This is required to be filed under seal in Illinois.

One can also petition to have their entire case sealed, or, specific orders sealed.  For example, in the discovery process, one may seek a protective order over certain documents or records exchanged (not just filed) in a case if there is a belief that they should not otherwise be disclosed.  Judges are able to issue protective orders under Illinois Supreme Court Rules to seal such documents and prevent them from being distributed elsewhere.  Additionally, in some cases in Illinois (but rarely) an entire case file  might be sealed to protect the litigants.  This is usually reserved for only persons that are in the public eye or that are involved in high interest cases.  It is not easy to have these records sealed.

I, for one, am surprised anyone would criticize the Oklahoma Judge who sealed Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert’s divorce file.  This seems like the type of high profile matter which would warrant being sealed, due to the high public interest, weighed against the parties’ right to privacy.  While not every divorce case requires such a drastic measure, in my opinion, this one fits the bill.

Parties who have not yet divorced that wish to keep their financial information a secret can choose to incorporate their Marital Settlement Agreement “by reference only” in their Judgment, meaning the Marital Settlement Agreement is absent from the court records.  This affords some privacy to parties that wish to have it but are otherwise unable to have their file sealed.  The only downside is that if the Marital Settlement Agreement does not appear in the court file, the parties must make a good record of what the original document looks like, must keep it in a safe place (and copies) so that they are able to access it for enforcement or modification later on, since a copy is not in the file.  Sometimes this is worth the risk to litigants so long as their personal information is protected from the public eye.

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