Sealing Divorce Papers in New York: An Unbreakable Seal?

As you or a loved one are considering filing for divorce there are often many concerns racing through your mind. For many individuals, concerns regarding third party access to your personal divorce papers is a genuine worry. So are these papers public records? Can anyone get their hands on your most intimate details? The short answer to this question is not exactly.

Many New Yorkers seeking divorce will be pleased to know that the state of New York has stronger privacy laws regarding divorces compared to many other states. Under New York Domestic Relations Law (“DRL”) § 235, pleadings to a matrimonial action are sealed for 100 years, in other words, for your lifetime. Only the parties themselves or the attorneys’ of record may obtain the court files.

However, the court has acknowledged that in some circumstances, the intimate records of couples’ divorce proceedings can be released. Courts may order the divorce records to be released if good cause is shown. Before a court order can be issued though, the court must be convinced by the applicant that intrusion into essentially private matters is warranted. The Court calls the standard “special circumstances,” and a showing of such circumstances is required.

Another circumstance that courts have recognized as warranting the opening of divorce papers, is for defendants in civil tort actions. Such defendants may have sought access to divorce court files of the persons who bring actions against them. In the past, courts have balanced the privacy interests of the divorced spouses with the legitimate interests of third parties in obtaining access to evidence relevant to court proceedings brought against them by divorced persons. In balancing the competing interests, the courts have protected the privacy rights of the former spouses and not granted access unless the party seeking disclosure demonstrates the existence of a significant link between the incident at issue in the tort litigation and the termination of the marriage.

An example of a significant link includes a case involving a claim by a husband against a hospital and physicians that their malpractice resulted in his wife’s suicide. The husband had been estranged from his wife. The court allowed the defendants access to the divorce pleadings. The court held that the shield afforded by DRL §235 must give way to the need for relevant evidence in this case. The court found that the matrimonial file had an “obvious significance” on the husband’s claim for pecuniary loss. The defendants were able to convince the court that they had something more in mind than a mere fishing expedition through private papers.

If you are considering a divorce, contact an experienced New York divorce and family law attorney. The attorneys at Martin Grossbach, P.C., serve Westchester, Rockland, New York City, and all surrounding areas. Please contact us today at 914-631-6666 to schedule an initial consultation.

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