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When reports surfaced this week that Bill O'Reilly had been accused of domestic abuse during divorce proceedings, the news only came to light because a source leaked the information. The actual documents of the case were filed under seal, and testimony was given during closed hearings.
But, as NASCAR's CEO Brain France learned, not all sealed divorce documents stay sealed. So how do you seal divorce papers, and how can you make sure the filings of your divorce stay sealed?
Default Settings: Public
The default setting for nearly all court proceedings is that they are matters of public record. This includes divorce proceedings and the associated paperwork. When balancing an individual's privacy against a public's right to court records, courts usually side with the public. In France's case, after news outlets requested the divorce paperwork be unsealed, the court ruled that the public interest in the records outweighed France's right to secrecy.
So the likelihood is that your divorce filings will be a matter of public. But you may be able to take comfort in the fact that the press usually only wants to know the salacious details of celebrity uncouplings.
Exceptions to the Rule
While courts will default toward allowing open court records, there are exceptions in cases involving minors, allegations of child or sexual abuse, or other sensitive matters. Even then, both parties must request that the court seal the entire file or specific portions.
As noted above, the court will ask whether the damage to the party wanting privacy outweighs the public benefit of open records. And it is up to the court whether or not to grant a motion to seal divorce documents.
That said, many courts will place divorce documents under seal in order to:
Getting divorce documents sealed (and keeping them there) can be a tricky proposition, but not beyond the capabilities of an experienced divorce attorney.