How to Get Old Divorce Papers
By Phil M. Fowler
Divorce is a public legal proceeding, which means old divorce paperwork is generally public record and accessible by anyone. The best source for old divorce paperwork is the public records archive in the courthouse where the divorce was filed. All documents filed with the court in a divorce case will be permanently archived by the court clerk. Some state courts even provide online access to old divorce files.
Locate the courthouse where the divorce proceeding took place. Generally, state laws require divorce proceedings to be filed in the county where one or both of the spouses resided for at least 60 days prior to the divorce filing. If you don't know which county courthouse handled the case, you can contact any courthouse in the state and the court clerk can usually help you determine the county where the divorce occurred.
Identify the case number and file. If you already know the divorce case number (sometimes referred to as the "civil number"), you can go to the courthouse and ask the clerk to obtain the file for that case number. If you don't know the case number, you can typically search for it using the name of either spouse involved in the case. As a general rule, all paperwork in a civil file is public record; the court clerk may charge a reasonable copying fee and you can then take copies of the paperwork with you.
Contact the attorney who assisted with the divorce if you need old paperwork from your own divorce. If you are unable to locate your divorce file in the courthouse, you can obtain old divorce papers from the attorney who helped with your case. Attorneys generally retain all case files permanently, so your attorney should have exactly what you need. Generally, state ethics rules forbid attorneys from giving out confidential client information, so unless you are a former client of the attorney, you probably won’t be able to obtain the requested paperwork.
Several state courts, such as those in Kentucky, New York and Utah, have created searchable online databases that you can use to obtain case information, and in some instances, court documents. Before you waste any time traveling from courthouse to courthouse, check to see if your state has an online database. Some courts even provide online access to case files and paperwork, so you may be able to obtain the old divorce paperwork right from your home computer. Most likely, you will still need to pay a fee to the court, but you can use a debit or credit card instead of cash or check.
In rare situations, some or all of the contents of an old divorce file may be sealed, which means the papers are not open to public review. For instance, if the divorce involved sensitive issues with minor children, the judge presiding over the divorce may order the case file sealed to protect the minor children. If you encounter this situation, you will need to obtain a court order to access those sealed records.
The Constitution Guru has worked as a writer and editor for "BYU Law Review" and "BYU Journal of Public Law." He is an experienced attorney with a law degree and a B.A. degree in history with an emphasis on U.S. Constitutional history, both earned at Brigham Young University.