A very common question from high net worth individuals, celebrities, business owners and professionals is this: “How can I keep my divorce/paternity case private?” Over the last thirty-plus years of family law practice in South Florida, I have represented or sat across the table from judges, professional athletes, record producers, entrepreneurs and others for whom the “airing of dirty laundry” would have the potential for great embarrassment and even loss of income and reputation. Does Florida law provide any avenue of protection when the marriage comes to an end? Incidentally, the answer is also applicable to paternity cases, post-judgment alimony/custody modifications and enforcement actions as well.
To begin, it is best to discuss this with your significant other how a public case could hurt future income production or the parties’ public standing which would not benefit either party. That discussion can help to overcome the anger, sense of revenge, etc., that may have accompanied the inception of the divorce/paternitycase in the first instance. If an early agreement can be reached to proceed fairly (even aggressively) but privately, the door can open for an alternative dispute resolution process such as mediation or collaborative family law. Using these alternative techniques which avoid litigation, a divorce/paternity case can be fully negotiated and settled out of the public eye. The end product of these alternatives to litigation is a signed settlement agreement. With a settlement agreement, the case can then be handled as ‘uncontested’. This means that the pleadings to be filed in the public record will be brief and rudimentary. Most important, the parties can agree that the settlement agreement itself will remain private, only in the possession of the parties and their respective lawyers, and only be filed with the court in the event of a subsequent action for enforcement or modification of its terms.
Florida law does provide a mechanism for one or both parties to request the court to ‘seal’ or preventing the public from access to some or all of the court papers. If both parties consent to the request to seal the court file, it is more likely this will be granted by the court. For example, details about the children are a popular subject for sealing court files. However, if one side objects this will require a heavily contested evidentiary hearing before the judge. And as Florida law favors open public records, the chances of success are limited.
The benefits of using alternative dispute resolution techniques in divorce/paternity cases quickly becomes obvious if privacy is a major concern.