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In the wake actor David Carradine's tragic death in a Bangkok hotel, papers filed by his ex-wife in their 2003 divorce have been unearthed in attempts to shed light on his lifestyle and death. Seeing such intimate personal details laid bare reminds us that it is often a good idea to request, and confirm, that divorce papers be filed under seal.
Confidentiality in divorce proceedings is a good idea for many reasons. Divorce papers contain personal information including names, addresses and social security numbers at the very least. Additionally, bank account information and other data could be an identity theft risk if made public. As the Carradine case makes clear, divorce papers can also include extremely personal information which furthermore can come from parties trying to paint each other in the worst light possible.
So, what can a divorcing party do? One option is to request that divorce papers be filed "under seal."
In most states, courts default toward allowing open court records, with exceptions such as cases involving minors, etc. Parties can request that the court seal the entire file or portions of it. The basic test is whether the damage to the party wanting privacy outweighs the public benefit of open records. The need for privacy of financial information is a commonly accepted reason to seal some documents. Other types of potential damage to a party from disclosure can also be cited. It will be up to the court whether or not to grant a motion to seal.
And another thing -- if the motion to seal is granted, have your attorney ensure that what's supposed to be sealed actually gets sealed. The Smoking Gun, which publicized Carradine's divorce papers points out that these papers were supposed to be filed under seal, but somehow mistakenly made their way into the publicly available file.