People often ask me privacy questions about their divorce. Here are my clients' three biggest concerns:
- When will my spouse learn that I have filed for divorce?
- Will my neighbors / the folks at church / the members of my bridge club learn that I have filed for divorce?
- How much dirty laundry is there for the public to view?
- Can someone steal my identity from the information in the divorce papers?
I'll take this on, but with the understanding that I'm only licensed to practice law in Texas, so I don't know what information is public in other states, and I only handle agreed divorces, so I see a lot less dirty laundry than the average Dallas Texas divorce lawyer.
The way you start a divorce is to file an Original Petition for Divorce. The person who files the Petition is called the Petitioner, and the spouse is called the Respondent. When I do a Petition, it's pretty minimal, and about all the information it contains is:
- Names of Husband, Wife, and minor children
- The last three digits of the filer's SSN and DL
- Dates of marriage and separation
- The statement that the marriage isn't working and that there's no reasonable expectation that the parties will reconcile
If the lawyer is much more aggressive, and expects a fight, here's other information that might be in the Petition:
- Allegations that a party has committed adultery, is hooked on drugs, has abused or abandoned a child, has been convicted of a felony, has left the area, and so forth
- Statements that the Petitioner needs protection from the Respondent by ordering the respondent to do certain things and not do other things (like intercepting mail, canceling credit cards or insurance, and things like that).
In either case, the Petition is filed with the District Clerk and anybody can go to the District Clerk and ask to see the file, and even pay the District Clerk to make copies for them at $1 a page. As of March, 2008, when I write this, you can't go online and see what's in court documents, but you can look up names to see if they are a party to a lawsuit (such as a divorce), and if they have, you can see a list of documents that have been filed in the suit (you can only see the list, not the contents of the documents).
But, what are the odds that it will come to the attention of your spouse, or your neighbor, that you have filed for divorce? Generally, the odds are pretty low. If your spouse goes online to the District Clerk's web site every day and searches for your name, he or she will learn right away that the divorce has been filed.
Lists of divorce filings are published weekly in highly specialized newspapers who only publish lists of public data like this. Almost nobody really reads these newspapers, but may use the information for their marketing purposes. For instance, if I started a business called Hal's Welding, I'd need to file an assumed name document with the county clerk to tell the world that Hal's Welding is really just another name for Hal Davis. CPAs comb through these listings to find new businesses that need accountants, and other folks would use these listings to sell all kinds of services to them, such as insurance services, computer hardware, phone services, and on and on. But it's really unlikely that your neighbor is going to subscribe to the paper and read the list of folks who have filed for divorce just to see if any of the names ring a bell.
Sometimes divorce lawyers will use the published lists to solicit business. For instance, if I see that John Quincy Adams filed for divorce against Mary Jane Adams, I could look at the property records to see if I can find any real estate that's owned by John Q Adams and MJ Adams. If so, I could send a letter addressed to Mary Jane telling her that her husband has filed for divorce and she really ought to hire her own Dallas Texas divorce attorney, and by the way, I'm a mighty fine lawyer and I'd like to meet with her. So, it's possible that Mary Jane Adams will learn about the divorce when she gets a letter from a lawyer who wants to represent her. The odds of this happening are reduced if the parties don't own any real estate in the county where the petition was filed.
A similar question is "when will my spouse be served with papers?" When I file for divorce, knowing that I expect it to be agreed, I almost never have respondent served with papers. Only if the case drags on and the spouse is not being cooperative will my client pay me the extra fee to have their spouse served with papers.
In an agreed divorce, there is seldom any information filed with the courts other than the Petition for Divorce and the Final Decree of Divorce. Things are different with a contested divorce, as there may be documents that infer the presence of some of the ugly things I mentioned above (adultery, drug use, and so on).
But the Final Decree of Divorce can also be a source of private information even in an agreed divorce. And, any member of the public can go to the courthouse and look at the Final Decree of Divorce after the divorce is final.
We try to take care to list only limited information about the parties in a divorce. Rather than list the entire SSN and driver's license number, we're taking more care to list only the last three digits of those numbers, such as a SSN of xxx-xx-x123. This is enough for an employer or creditor to be pretty certain that the person in the divorce decree is the same person as their borrower, but not enough for someone else to steal their identity.
Credit card information is often listed in a divorce decree. My preference is to simply state that the husband will be responsible for any credit cards in his name, and wife will be responsible for any credit cards in her name, so no credit card information is listed. But sometimes the fair thing to do is for one party to pay a credit card in the other person's name. In that case, we'll have to list the credit card information with enough specificity that it can be enforceable in the courts, but not enough that someone else can try to charge purchases to that card. Some folks like to list the credit card number as xxxx xxxx xxxx 1234. The problem is that the credit report lists them the other way, and makes it difficult to explain to a loan officer that what the credit report lists as 1234 5678 9101 xxxx is the same obligation as the xxxx xxxx xxxx 1234 listed in the divorce decree. So, I prefer to list the card numbers as they appear in the credit report (1234 5678 9101 xxxx).
We have a similar problem with bank accounts. The most private way is to say that husband keeps all bank accounts in his name and wife keeps all bank accounts in her name. But that won't work if wife is concerned that husband has a bank account in his name that he hasn't told her about. Or, if they agree to divide the IRA in the divorce. In these cases we may have to be quite specific, including full account numbers, and if so, the only protection is to get divorced, divide the bank accounts, and then change all the account numbers (close the bank account and open a new one with a different number).
So, remember that anything that's filed with the courts is public information, and anybody with enough curiosity and time can get the information in the documents. And, if there's still some trust between the parties, consider leaving detailed financial information out of the pleadings.
Hal Davis is a Dallas Texas Divorce Lawyer who has handled many types of divorce. He puts his client’s needs first and handles your divorce case with respect and integrity.