In most counties, all court filings are now available on line. In this blog I will explore the impact of this on divorcing couples with minor children. As most people know, you begin a divorce action by filing a complaint for divorce. Once you file the complaint, your case is assigned to a judge and the information, meaning the contents of the documents you file with the court become available to purchase on line shortly thereafter. Since the information is public, the first encounter one may experience as a result of filing is that the non-filing spouse will receive a solicitation in the mail from what I would call a bottom feeder attorney, informing the non-filer that their spouse has filed for divorce. I can’t think of a worse way to find out that your husband or wife has proceeded with a divorce. In fact I had a client recently open just such a lawyer letter on her 50th birthday, right before she was leaving for her party. Her husband planned to tell her he had filed after the celebration.
We have all heard the stories about horrific battles fought between divorcing couples. Divorce often brings out the worst in people. It is certainly ranked as one of the most terrible of possible life experiences. How a couple handles their divorce during the pendency of their case has a serious impact on their children. If you file for divorce with a minor child involved, the State of Michigan, for public policy reasons, wants you to wait for a period of six months before you can finalize your action. Family court judges in Michigan are supposed to finalize a divorce case in less than a year, which may mean a trial if you are unable to resolve your differences without one.
A lot can happen while working on reaching a settlement. The family court judge your case is assigned to is there to assist with interim issues. Interim issues that arise range from matters pertaining to your children such as what parenting time plan should be implemented during the case, how bills should be paid and whether discovery is being conducted properly. If one person alleges fault against the other for the breakdown of the marriage, the facts can get ugly and the case can get messy for the kids right along with the adults. In an attempt to get interim relief from a court, a party will file a motion. What you place in a motion is up to you and your attorney. For instance, if you want your spouse to have supervised parenting time because he/she is an alcoholic, you may allege facts about their drinking in the motion. If your alcoholic spouse has a DUI, you may attach a copy of the police report in support of your claim. The motion is then available on line for anyone to read. So let’s take this scenario a step further to view its impact on a child. Let’s say this divorcing couple, whom we will call Susie and Dennis Johnson have some noisy neighbors. We’ll call the neighbors Martha and David Davis. The Davis’s know what is going on with the Johnson’s divorce. In the county where I practice, all Martha would have to do to find this information is pull up the Johnsons’ divorce on the court website. The case docket sheet would pop up. The docket sheet would show what has been filed on the case. For instance, it would show that a complaint had been filed along with the date of the filing. It would show whether an answer and a counter claim had been filed, along with the date that those documents had been filed with the court. The Davis’s would also see on the docket sheet that Susie Johnson had filed a motion for her husband to only be awarded supervised parenting time. If they wanted to know more about the details of the motion, they could order and pay for a copy of it, which they would then receive online. Once they received the copy, they could share its contents with other friends and neighbors.
Sound outrageous? It happens all the time! Children of divorcing parents have enough to deal with, with the separation of their parents alone. To have their friends and neighbors gossiping behind their backs is beyond harmful to the emotional well-being of the children. As I sit and write this post, I can think of many more inflammatory allegations that have become part of the public court records. Think about pornography and extramarital relationships – none of his type of information is off limits in a motion. The harmful effects of such statements almost always out-weigh the benefits.
As adults, we are responsible to protect our children. There is absolutely no reason that a family’s dirty laundry should be aired in a public forum, especially when minor children are involved. Juicy information involving minor children should not be available to the general public for entertainment. There is no reason that an alternative, privatized system can’t be implemented to protect families during divorce. These sensitive documents should not be available to non-litigants and the court period. We claim to be a society that puts the best interests of our children first. If that is the case, the current court practice must change now!
In the meantime, while everything is “for sale” on line, here are a few suggestions to protect your family during divorce:
1. If you have to fight for something like supervised parenting time due to an addiction etc. keep your pleadings as general as possible and only attach your proof in support of the relief you are requesting to the Judge’s copy. That way, your “proof” will not be available on line.
2. If you know there is some damaging information that could become part of the court file, try to get your spouse to agree in advance to a protective order that only allows such information to be used in ways that protect your family’s privacy the best.
3. If emotions are running high, especially if the break down in your marriage involves addiction or infidelity, a good divorce counselor may help you and your spouse reach decisions amongst yourselves, with minimum court assistance. The goal in divorce should be to maintain control over your life. If you and your partner cannot come to your own agreements, you are going to leave decisions impacting your children and your life in general to a complete stranger- namely your family law judge.
In conclusion, I urge everyone who reads this blog to petition the legislature to enact a law that makes divorce cases involving children private.