Published On: Mon, Oct 11th, 2010

Sealing of divorce records not necessary in Florida to keep financial information hidden

By Mike Gora

Q. I have read articles in your newspaper, and others, over the last few years regarding a controversy over sealing files in divorce cases to prevent the publication of marital settlement agreements and other financial information in public court records.

My wife and I are doing a good job in cooperatively working toward a fair settlement in our case that involves the division and distribution of about 36 million dollars of assets.  We have houses in different states and countries and non-retirement and retirement assets in the stock market.

Most of the assets were acquired during the marriage as we developed a well-known nationwide business in which we both worked.  The business sold for cash, creating a good deal of our present liquidity. We recently moved into South Florida where we are flying below the radar financially and would like to stay that way to avoid constant solicitation for one thing or another.

Our lawyers tell us that Florida law makes it unlawful for a judge to grant an order sealing court files without filing a separate case to do so, and notifying newspapers.  Is there any way around this problem?

A. Recently it has come to the attention of the Florida Supreme Court that existing rules governing the sealing of records by judges throughout Florida have been largely ignored in certain counties in South Florida. Many, but not all such incidents, involved financial records in divorce cases.

The court asked the Florida Bar, through its Board of Governors and committee system, to review the existing rules and recommend changes. That process is well underway.  The court sent a clear message to trial judges throughout Florida to apply strictly the current rules.

Current rules appear to require notice to be given to newspapers in the event that a trial court has sealed a file, or plans to seal a file, and allow the newspapers the opportunity to go to a court of competent jurisdiction, a circuit court, to unseal the files, or stop the process.  The changes will make it harder to seal files in Florida.

However, before a litigant has to be concerned about the sealing of a court record, the record you want to remain private has to become part of a court file.  Florida Circuit Court judges seem to have no problem in cooperating with attorneys in allowing agreements to keep certain financial information out of court files, to maintain the confidentiality of client records.

Marital settlement agreements often refer to “side letter agreements” which can hide the core financial agreements between the two of you.

Financial affidavits are required to be exchanged and filed in all Florida divorce cases, except the simplest cases where no financial relief is being sought.  Generally, at final hearings, in settled cases, the marital settlement agreement ending the case is filed in the court records.

When asked, however, many judges are willing to waive the filing of these documents, in order to allow parties to maintain financial secrecy by agreement of the attorneys for the parties to maintain these financial documents in their office files, and not the court files.

In a democratic and open society that cherishes freedom of the press, there is public purpose for open court files.  There seems to be no particular public purpose to require civil litigants to open up their financial records to the general public merely to get divorced.

Handled in the right way, it will not be necessary for you to seek the sealing of your court records, as the important documents will not be there.

Michael H. Gora has been certified by the Board of Specialization and Education of The Florida Bar as a specialist in family and matrimonial law, and practices in Boca Raton with the firm of Shapiro Blasi Wasserman & Gora, P.A.

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  1. Manuela Bramante says:

    Dear Mr. Gora, I read your article but I do not understand if in the end, at present Florida law does or does not require to include financial affidavits as public records in divorce judgements. I ask this question because last July I got an uncontested divorce with a Marital Settlement Agreement and at that time was not even discussed at the hearing the fact that we would have prefered not having our financial affidavits in public records. Could I at this point request the court of not making them publicly available? What is the the Florida Statues governing this issue? Thank you very much for your reply that I am confident will help me to better understand the issue. Sincerely yours.

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