In most states, divorce and family law filings are public information unless specific actions are taken to protect the documents and hearing from the public eye. Whether an individual is a public figure, a celebrity, a high-powered executive or any person who does not want their private affairs available to the public, steps can be taken to maintain privacy. Prior to COVID most courtrooms were open to the public but unless you had hours to spend at the courthouse, you could not view court hearings. However, with hearings being conducted on Zoom and other media platforms, many Judges are forced to broadcast their hearings on YouTube and other public venues open to anyone, anywhere, anytime. However, there are ways to keep divorce filings and hearings private so couples, even in high conflict matters, can divorce with privacy and dignity.
1. Filing Under Initials
Some, but not all counties in Texas allow parties to file under initials in an effort to maintain privacy. There are trolls who monitor case filings and will be quick to publish information on social media if a high profile divorce case is filed under a person’s full legal name. These trolls may publish the Petition for Divorce or other case related information before the other spouse is even aware of the lawsuit. Some clients report that their spouses knew about the filing for divorce before being served because the spouse monitored court filings. Filing under initials, which do not even have to be the parties’ actual initials, keeps information private. While filing a case under initials may maintain privacy in the beginning of the case, eventually a divorce decree will have to be filed with at least one reference to both parties’ full legal names in order for the divorce decree to be enforceable or to document orders related to children of the marriage.
2. Sealing the Case
The Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code allows a court to seal a case upon a party’s written motion. Most judges will grant a motion to seal a case, keeping the court filings away from public scrutiny if both parties agree the case should be sealed.
3. Alternative Dispute Resolution
Alternative options exist, even in high conflict cases, to keep private family disputes out of family law courtrooms.
a. Collaborative Law
Collaborative law is a voluntary process initiated when couples sign a contract binding each other to the process to work with their collaborative professionals (lawyers, financial professionals, coaches, and oftentimes mental health experts) to achieve a settlement that best meets the needs of both parties without the threat of litigation. Collaborative law is beneficial as a cost and time saving option for resolving several types of family issues including division or property, custody disputes and pre-marital/postnuptial agreements.
b. Hiring a Private Judge- A time saving option to consider.
While the substantial majority of divorce cases settle in mediation, attempts to resolve disputes by exchanging settlement proposals or attending mediation or other attempts and some cases must go to a final trial no matter how much one or both parties try to settle. Experienced, retired Judges occasionally make themselves available for to try cases in a private setting. The Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code allows parties to use a private judge if both parties agree. There are many benefits to hiring a private judge including but not limited to saving time, ease of scheduling, saving money and choice of judge. Many family law dockets are backlogged with cases so it may take a year or more to get a trial setting. Hiring a private judge may allow for a quicker resolution outside of the courtroom. While this may sound like a great option parties should be aware of the added expense of paying for a private judge expensive because the parties will be required to pay for the private judge’s time as well as paying for a venue to conduct the trial. Some courthouses have unused courtrooms which can be made available for cases tried by private judges. In other cases, couples rent conference rooms at hotels or other private locations to conduct a trial and maintain privacy. The ruling by the private judge is just as enforceable and binding as if the case were litigated before court.
4. Drafting Agreements Not Filed With the Court
Finally, not all final divorce related documents must be filed with the Court. Often parties agree to put the bare minimum in an actual Divorce Decree while outlining the specifics of the agreement in a document called an Agreement Incident to Divorce which is not filed with the Court. The Agreement Incident to Divorce is enforceable as a contract between the parties but if it is not filed with the Court then public information such as detailed financial account information, large cash payments and other private details of the financial agreement are not available for public viewing.
High conflict and high net worth cases can resolved while maintaining the privacy and dignity of the parties if the right steps are taken in advance.