Divorce has an uncanny way of bringing our most private circumstances to light. Even when the split is an amicable one, details like personal finances, a child’s special needs, and other intimate information take center stage so that they can be addressed and future plans made. Therefore, it’s an alarming thought that your family, friends, and even neighbors might learn every detail about your divorce.
Fortunately, New York has strong privacy laws when it comes to divorce records. Domestic Relations Law § 235 specifies that all matrimonial action pleadings must be sealed for 100 years, with access generally granted only to the parties involved and their respective attorneys.
Note the word “generally.” Under some circumstances, the court may order your divorce record to be unsealed if the applicant convinces it that the intrusion into your privacy is justified. It’s a high standard to meet, but not impossible.
In Janecka v. Casey (1986), a husband filed a claim for wrongful death and pain and suffering against Gracie Square Hospital and its physicians alleging that their malpractice led to his estranged wife’s suicide.
The hospital’s records stated that the women had admitted herself for treatment, stating that she had been despondent ever since her husband filed for divorce and custody of their children two years earlier. After being confined for over two weeks for observation, she was released and subsequently killed herself two months later, just prior to the scheduled execution of a divorce settlement.
The defendants applied to the Supreme Court, Bronx County, to have the divorce pleadings unsealed. They succeeded because the court found that in claiming future economic loss due to the death of his wife, the husband invited examination of his marriage. Wrongful death actions in New York typically review the nature of the relationship between the plaintiff and the deceased person to determine how much compensation, if any, is due.
Although the defendant succeeded in accessing the plaintiff’s divorce record because it proved a connection between the divorce and the cause of action, such decisions are rare, and conditions may apply even when granted. For example, in Kodsi v. Gee (2008), the court allowed a divorce record to be made available but specified that the parties’ tax returns remain sealed.
New York courts are highly reluctant to unseal records if there are charges or allegations of child abuse or domestic violence, due to privacy concerns for the victim(s). With these cases, it may be harder for the applicant to prove that their need for information outweighs the parties’ right to privacy.
If you are concerned about the possibility of your divorce records being unsealed, then contact your New York divorce attorney for guidance. Although the likelihood of a third party accessing your personal information is low, legal advice on the matter can set your mind at ease.
Jayson Lutzky is a Bronx, New York divorce and family court attorney. If you have legal questions, then set up an in-office consultation with Mr. Lutzky. You may reach his office at 718-514-6619.