Divorce causes enough painful emotions in and of itself, what with the ending of a relationship, a family, and having to divide property and arrive at the best custody arrangement for the children. Divorce leaves one feeling very exposed – your most private matters in court pleadings and your finances in evidence. But does the public have a right to view that private material as well?
Missouri has moved to an electronic filing system for state courts. Currently, anyone can go to the Missouri court site and look up information on cases, both open and closed. But not all information filed in that case is open to the public.
Missouri has taken specific measures to try and keep certain items out of general public view. For instance, when a divorce petition is first filed, it must be filed with an accompanying confidential information sheet – and the confidential part means not accessible to the public. So Social Security numbers, addresses, phone number and email will stay private.
What about the required financial forms parties file with the divorce? Fortunately, the electronic filing system keeps those records only to the parties and their attorneys.
What about pleadings that contain sensitive matters? Here we hit more difficult territory. In general, all the pleadings are open for public view. If you have sensitive matters that will be raised in a motion and want to keep that private, you should ask your attorney to have the motion filed under seal. If the court approves, the public will not have access to that motion, or might at a minimum redact certain information, particularly if it involves a child.
It is important to note that just because the electronic filing system does not make certain items available online does not preclude access to the public by going to the courthouse and checking the actual court file. Only items like the confidential filing form or anything filed under seal will be unavailable to a person who checks the file. So, in this sense, seeking a privacy seal order early would be best if you have sensitive information.
Motions to seal files are not slam dunk cases. The Supreme Court has long held that the First Amendment gives the public a “right to know” about court proceedings, and the party seeking to keep anything confidential must meet a high bar. So, for example, just alleging you do not want people to know your actual income is not sufficient; but saying that disclosure of certain financial material could damage your business would meet that threshold. Bottom line: keeping matters away from public view can be more challenging than you might imagine, but at least the electronic filing system generally shelters financial matters and issues with children.
If you have questions about keeping divorce proceedings private, contact us – we can help.