Overview of “Sealed” Divorce Papers in New York

Rincker Law Family/Matrimonial Law Leave a Comment

New York has stronger privacy laws with divorces when compared to 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 may order for the divorce records to be release if good cause is shown. Before a court order should be issued, the court must be convinced by the applicant that intrusion into essentially private matters is warranted.

A showing of “special circumstances is required”.  See People v. Doe, 457 N.Y.S.2d 399 (Sup.Ct. Erie County 1982) where a Grand Jury could not obtain portions of a matrimonial file through subpoena.

Defendants in civil tort actions have sought access to divorce court files of the persons who brought actions against them. The courts have balanced 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 nexus between the incident at issue in the tort litigation and the termination of the marriage.

For example, where the tort plaintiff was complaining that he suffered economic losses as a result of a legal malpractice in the handling of the matrimonial action, access to the file was granted.  However the disclosure of tax returns was limited.  See Kodsi v. Gee, 54 A.D.3d 613, 864 N.Y.S.2d 9 (1st Dept 2008).

In Janecka v. Casey, 121 A.D.2d 28, 508 N.Y.S.2d 451 (1st Dept. 1986) there was 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.

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