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New York has some of the most comprehensive privacy laws in the country, and divorce records are no exception. In some states, the general public can request copies of divorce records just like any other publicly accessible court file, but in New York, divorces are given special treatment and are confidential. All divorce actions are automatically sealed by the court from the moment the action commences, and filings within a divorce action are only obtainable by specific individuals or by court order.
Domestic Relations Law (DRL) Section 235 provides that, in the case of separations, divorce actions, or proceedings regarding custody, child support, or spousal maintenance, the court “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.” Parties are afforded additional protection pursuant to the Family Court Act Section 166, which states “the records of any proceeding in the family court shall not be open to indiscriminate public inspection.”
Divorce records are not public in New York due to the sensitive nature of many divorce proceedings, often involving personal finances, the welfare of children from the marriage and child custody, or even histories of domestic abuse. Accordingly, courts are permitted to redact sections of divorce records before providing them to requestors. Typically, this redaction consists of the addresses of children involved in the cases, and other sensitive or personally identifying information may be redacted as well.
It is important to note that while divorce records are kept confidential, there are elements of the action that are publicly available. For example, the case caption, i.e., the names of the plaintiff and defendant, the county in which the action is brought, and the index number assigned to the action, are not confidential and can be found via the court’s online platforms. Also, divorce certificates, also known as “Certificates of Dissolution,” are considered a public record and any person can obtain a copy of this document. The Certificate of Dissolution is a document that has been required to be filed at the conclusion of every divorce since 1963, and the New York State Department of Health maintains a file of every certificate ever filed. The Certificate of Dissolution contains general facts and biographical information about the parties, their marriage, and the divorce, including, among other things, the names of the former spouses and the date the divorce was finalized. Typically, a Certificate of Dissolution is requested by a party to the action in order to obtain a new marriage certificate for re-marriage. However, it is worth bearing in mind that this document is not confidential and any person could potentially request a copy.
Furthermore, in the event that an action or proceeding goes to trial and the court renders an opinion, that opinion may be published. If the action continues past the trial on to an appeal, the appellate courts are authorized to access the court records of the trial courts and may even quote from the trial record in their decisions. Appellate courts publish their opinions free from any restraints on confidentiality. Once an opinion is published, whether at the trial level, appellate level, or both, it is accessible via legal databases such as Westlaw or LexisNexis, and perhaps more importantly, searchable on the internet.