Generally, when cases are litigated, the court papers become part of the public record. Family and matrimonial cases in New York, however, are different. They remain confidential, and cannot be accessed without a court order.
Under New York Domestic Relations Law (DRL) Section 235:
An officer of the court with whom the proceedings in a matrimonial action or a written agreement of separation or an action or proceeding for custody, visitation or maintenance of a child are filed, or before whom the testimony is taken, or his clerk, either before or after the termination of the suit, shall not permit a copy of any of the pleadings, affidavits, findings of fact, conclusions of law, judgment of dissolution, written agreement of separation or memorandum thereof, or testimony, or any examination or perusal thereof, to be taken by any other person than a party, or the attorney or counsel of a party, except by order of the court.
In other words, the final divorce decree (and its contributing details and information) is sealed; the only people who can access them without a court order are the spouses who obtained the divorce, and their respective attorneys/ law firms. The records remain sealed for 100 years. Attorneys “of record” – that is, lawyers who are officially listed as representing a party on a case – can access these documents by going to the County Clerk’s office and making a formal request. Attorneys not listed on the case who wish to obtain copies of these records must present a signed letter to the County Clerk with explicit permission from the Plaintiff or Defendant.
Exceptions to the rule
There may be times when the court unseals the records, or a portion of the records, if special circumstances apply. For example, if one party is involved in unrelated litigation, the court may unseal part of the divorce records for use in another case: Kodsi v Gee, 54 AD3d 613 (2015).
Remember, too, that sealing a divorce decree does not mean the name of the case cannot be searched. Unless an attorney requests that the spouses’ names are kept confidential, anyone can still look up a case and see that the parties divorced; they just may not be able to see what happened during the case. Further, if the court issues decisions on motions in the case, it may choose to publish those decisions. If the case proceeds to the appellate court, the appellate court will publish its opinions.
Court rulings are generally available online, and so spouses who have litigious divorces may Google their names and find a court decision laying out some very personal details of their lives. Couples who wish to protect their personal privacy may want to consider non-court alternatives, such as negotiation, mediation, or collaborative law.
New York’s privacy laws are some of the strictest in the nation. Berkman Bottger Newman & Schein LLP aims to keep your private information out of the public eye. To schedule a consultation with an experienced matrimonial law attorney, please call (212) 466-6015 or fill out our contact form. The firm serves clients throughout New York City, Westchester, and Bergen County, NJ.