Posted on January 25, 2017 by Carol Hill
Last September it hit the social media circuit by storm: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were divorcing. The initial documents filed by Jolie were not pretty. Jolie requested sole physical custody of the couple’s children and made multiple allegations about Pitt’s parenting including claims of child abuse. Pitt responded by requesting an emergency order to seal all documents in the case “in order to protect the children.” Jolie responded that it was simply a “thinly veiled attempt to shield himself, rather than the minor children, from public view.” The tone of the case has lately shifted to being more amicable, but the initial documents and accusations are still visible in the public record and the six Pitt/Jolie children and third parties can access them in the future.
In Washington State all dissolution files are generally public record. Court rules only allow financial and specific health information to be filed “under seal” (meaning not publically accessible). Any requests to the court made during a divorce or other family law proceeding must include declarations from both parties explaining why the request is being made or why it is objected to, and providing background information regarding the case and issues at hand. These filings and declarations are public information and therefore can be accessed by anyone who goes to the courthouse and looks through the file. This creates a bit of a catch-22 situation. While, it is necessary to include detailed information when making requests to the court, a party may also not want to “air dirty laundry” that will then be publically accessible. Before rushing to the courthouse, you should fully consider and discuss your options with your attorney. Is it possible to reach a resolution and enter an agreed order? Is an agreement attainable with help from your attorney or would the other party agree to a mediation to reach a resolution? These alternatives might help keep private information out of the court record and still allow the parties to enter enforceable court orders, but there will always be cases where agreement is not possible. While it is necessary to include a detailed explanation to support your requests to the court, be mindful about the information you share. Is an allegation that your soon-to-be-ex-spouse is bi-polar necessary when you are only addressing financial issues and there is no actual medical diagnosis? Are all the salacious details of an affair necessary information in a no fault divorce state such as Washington?
While most of us will not have TMZ or the paparazzi searching through our court documents, it is a possibility that the children of divorce may research the dissolution matter when they are older and read the allegations and documents filed by their parents. These documents can have a detrimental effect on the children. It is also possible that an employer or potential employer might become aware of information available in your court records, potentially jeopardizing your financial well-being, or that of your ex-spouse on whom you and your children depend for support. Thus, it is important to be mindful about what is filed in the public record.
If you are considering a divorce, please contact any of the family law attorneys at Lasher Holzapfel Sperry & Ebberson to set up an appointment.