Are marriage and divorce records confidential? It depends. The laws and practices regarding sealed court records can differ from state to state. Divorce records in Texas are always sealed… unless you are a public official. Then they might not remain sealed. Many records are sealed due to extenuating circumstances, typically maintaining the privacy of the parties involved.
The question of whether records are sealed is often left up to the parties to whom the records belong, and if a request is made to unseal them, a judge must determine whether the reason justifies opening the document.
Here is a general overview of how to find records, why records may be sealed, and how to make a records request to open a sealed record. We have included information specific to the State of Texas, so be sure to research the law in the state where your documents of interest are filed.
How to Find Marriage and Divorce Records
The Department of Health or the Bureau of Vital Statistics provides general information on marriage and divorce within the state. You can confirm the event occurred and the county where the record is filed. Original copies of marriage licenses and divorce decrees are filed in the county clerk’s office.
An online research tool such as CourthouseDirect.com can help you locate marriage and divorce records. However, many states and counties require a nominal fee to obtain copies. Not all information is provided. In Texas, no personally identifying or private information is released, including social security numbers. The information, if present in requested records, is redacted before it’s released.
Why Are Divorce Records Sealed?
Court records are sealed for a variety of reasons.
- The courts have broad discretion in determining whether and to what degree a record may be sealed.
- The courts also determine whether a record may be unsealed.
- A court record can be sealed in part or in whole.
- Juvenile records are often sealed to protect the child’s privacy and will not be made available to the public.
Typically, divorce proceedings are not sealed by a judge. Both parties must agree and wish to move forward with sealing the records. Only then will a judge become involved to decide whether to grant the request for a sealed record.
The parties must have a valid reason for sealing a divorce record.
- Protection of the identities of minors
- Security of proprietary information about a company
- Prevention of false allegations
- Protection of a domestic violence victim
The court will redact only the information requested to be sealed so a record may remain partially open. A partially sealed record is more commonly granted than a fully sealed one. Information about financial settlements, alimony, custody, and criminal accusations may be included in the public record once the proceedings are complete.
How to Unseal Divorce Records
Before deciding to request records to be opened, consider whether you have an adequate justification for doing so. Why do you want to unseal them? The most crucial part of the process is convincing the courts, specifically a judge, that the reason you need to access the records is convincing and appropriate.
If you believe you have justification, you can start the process of requesting the records be unsealed.
- Understand the law in your state (or the state in which the records are filed). State law defines the reasons sealed records may be opened. Search online for “unseal records” and the name of the state. Include the type of record in the search, for example, “adoption records,” or “divorce records.”
- Consult an attorney. Speaking with a lawyer who is experienced in this area will increase your chances of creating a persuasive case. If your state allows attorneys to offer unbundled services, the lawyer fees may be less than you expect.
- Format a motion for the court. Depending on the state, there may be forms you can complete. If not, write a very formal and business-like letter following a sample. You should be able to find one online. The motion must include the legal authority that allows the judge to unseal the records. You may be required to have the motion notarized. Notaries are available at the courthouse. Be sure to bring a valid driver’s license, passport, or other acceptable identification.
- Deliver the motion to the correct court, which is the court where the sealed records are kept. The court clerk can direct you or, if you use an attorney, he or she can file the motion for you.
- If the records include information about a lawsuit, you need to serve notice of your motion to unseal the records to all parties who are involved in the case.
When you are ready to file the motion, ask for a hearing date. Before you go, review your motion, so your reasoning is fresh in your mind. Don't forget to take any supporting documents you may have. Get there early so you can park, get through security, and find the courtroom. Try to arrive 15 minutes before the hearing commences.
Once there, you will argue your position succinctly and await the decision. You may get an answer at that time, or the judge may take it under advisement. Once you complete an order form for the written decision, ask the court clerk when you may expect the records to be made available.
If your motion loses, you can appeal the decision. At this point, it’s best to have an attorney move it forward.
Marriage and divorce records are not automatically sealed by the court once the case has concluded. If you want your divorce records sealed, your now ex-spouse must agree to seal the documents and whether you want the entire record sealed or only part. You are more likely to get agreement from the court for sealing relevant parts of the documents instead of the whole record.
The law regarding sealed records differs from state to state. Files are more challenging to unseal in some states than others. In certain states, like Texas, if the person named in those records runs for public office, the public can request the file be opened.
Basic information about marriages and divorces is always available in aggregate. Most records remain open to the public. However, sealed records may not stay sealed. It all depends on why they were sealed in the first place, the information contained in the files, and why someone needs to see it.