Are Divorce Documents Public Record?

By Teo Spengler

With very few exceptions, all documents in court files are classified as public records. Most filings in a divorce case, from the opening petition to the final judgment, can be inspected by anyone who visits the courthouse in which the divorce was prosecuted during regular business hours. Jurisdictions vary regarding exceptions to public access.

Court Records

In most states, documents filed with the court -- from wills to death penalty litigation -- are considered public documents that may be viewed by anyone who comes to the courthouse. This includes divorce documents. Certain jurisdictions provide for viewing of court files over the Internet.

When Privacy Prevails

Each state legislature carves out exceptions to this rule it deems necessary. Documents detailing domestic abuse are considered private in some states, as are documents gathered as part of a person's psychological evaluation. Another common exception involves judicial work product, including a judge's notes, internal staff memos and document drafts.

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Are There Public Records When People File for Divorce?


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Many people cloak their wills in mystery, writing them in secret, hiding them in a wall safe or bank vault and refusing to breath a word about their intentions. But upon the testator's death, state law takes over. In order for the will to be effective, the person administering it -- termed the executor -- files it in probate court and authenticates the signature. When the will becomes part of a probate file, it is a public document, open to public review.

What Happens After You Sign & Notarize Your Divorce Documents?

Each state has unique laws regarding divorce and family law matters, so the actual process of preparing and filing divorce documents is determined by state civil procedure laws and local court rules. The term "divorce documents" may include the petition or complaint for divorce, motions for support and custody, stipulated property divisions, and final settlements and decrees. In general, divorce documents are commonly referred to as “pleadings” or “court filings."

Are Wills Public Record in California?

Neither the California Public Records Act nor the federal Freedom of Information Act applies to court documents. However, the California court system provides public access to all court documents not specifically made private by state statute. Thus, a last will and testament becomes a public document in California the minute it is filed in probate, absent a court order to the contrary.

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