Is a divorce part of the public record in Wisconsin? Should it be? After all, are your family issues really anyone else’s business? I ran across an interesting article from a few years ago written by a California divorce attorney lamenting the fact that divorce records are public and found that I agreed with most of his points. (My Divorce is None of Your Business). The premise of the article is that marriage and family are private and protected in many other areas of the law and society – so should then be divorce.
In Wisconsin, the answer is yes, divorce records are public. In fact, Wisconsin is one of the few states that give full public access to all court records online, including divorce (see CCAP). The only exception is paternity or children’s court cases which are confidential. Your court file is public record with the exception of financial statements, which are sealed. All family court proceedings, again except paternity cases, are open to the public.
How does this affect you? In reality, unless you have a really nosy neighbor with way too much time on their hands, people you know are not going to trek to the courthouse and peruse through your divorce file. But, CCAP does cause all types of issues for the people of Wisconsin. There has been much debate in Wisconsin about the level of access the public should have to these records. There have been complaints about discrimination from prospective employers, landlords, etc. The fact of it is, in Wisconsin, any contact you have had with the legal system is an open book for all to see.
The details of your divorce judgment are not necessarily listed on CCAP. But, sometimes details peek through in the notes the clerks make in the system with regards to hearings and court findings. This is dependent on the clerk and the judge. Occasionally, the judges will seal or restrict what appears on CCAP but a party would need to petition the court for that and there would need to be a compelling reason (a public figure, safety issues, etc.).
As family lawyers, one issue that we have with CCAP is that your divorce filing appears almost instantly. Therefore, if you don’t want your spouse to know you filed yet, you simply can’t file. Sometimes, there are reasons to file but to wait to serve the papers. Often when there is domestic violence, we want to initiate the divorce quickly to obtain a court date but don’t want to serve to allow our clients time to move out or put into place a safety plan. However, with the advent of CCAP, we can no longer do that. Pre-divorce planning is crucial in these situations and you should consult with your attorney regarding same.
Conversely, public court records can also be extremely helpful. It is difficult now to hide bad behavior and conceal legal problems or debts. Family lawyers can better protect our clients from undisclosed issues. In virtually every case, we feel an obligation to search CCAP to discover potential issues or problems. CCAP also allows us to keep track of and monitor our cases. It is an extremely important tool and resource for those of us working in the legal system.
The bottom line is that divorce can be messy and in Wisconsin, at least, it is public. Whatever your opinion might be about that, it is the reality that we must live with.
To discuss your case further with an experienced divorce attorney, contact us at 414-258-1644 to schedule a free initial office consultation or visit our website for more information.