Colorado DivorcePoint!

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Ain't Nobody's Business! Increased Privacy for Colorado Divorce Records

new restrictions to public access of Colorado divorce records

Many standard Colorado divorce forms contain rich details of the parties’ and their families’ personal data and information, including full names, birthdates and — most troubling — social security numbers. These sweeping disclosures have been mandated as oftentimes necessary to effect compliance with support orders and for other legitimate court and third party government purposes.

With identity theft on the rise, however, critics have challenged the public's formerly expansive access to Colorado divorce records as unduly invasive and dangerous.

In response to these privacy concerns, Chief Judges in certain Colorado counties and judicial disticts are now limiting public access to divorce and related files.

In Spring, 2005, the Colorado Supreme Court announced comprehensive rules generally seeking to maximize public accessibility to court records, but requiring court staff to remove personal information from files before release. Local counties and judicial disticts were given authority, however, to seek waivers of these general rules, if compliance with these editing requirements became burdensome.

As one example, Jefferson County's Chief Judge has now ordered access to divorce records restricted to the parties to the case and their attorneys of record, with two exceptions.

Non-parties may now obtain a copy of only two types of Colorado divorce records:

  1. the Decree of Dissolution or Legal Separation, and
  2. the Separation Agreement.

Copies of these court-filed documents will now be provided upon request, without special review or approval of the Court or a judicial officer — but only after all social security numbers are “redacted” (removed in their entirety) by court staff.

Most observers welcome this increased sensitivity to the potential abuses of public access to Colorado divorce records. And, although there seems little reason to withhold final divorce decrees (there is a compelling interest in the public to know the status of its citizens’ marriages), I remain troubled with the new policy's continuing to provide non-parties copies of a divorce “Separation Agreement.”

The Separation Agreement typically 1) discloses the details parties’ parenting plan (here, children's names, health and special needs are revealed with the parents' choices on how they will manage future decisions; additionally, specific schedules for timesharing are typically detailed) and 2) describes the parties’ finances: their assets, debts, income and employment, and support arrangements including child support and/or spousal maintenance, or “alimony”.

Because of the public's access to the Separation Agreement, I question whether these new directives go far enough. Some counties, of course, have, as a matter of local judicial district policy, freely “sealed” all divorce records. However, many feel the courts or legislature have missed an opportunity to implement a broader and statewide uniform policy not requiring savvy and special efforts to protect basic privacy information of Colorado divorcing parties.

(Interestingly, one of the state's major newspapers has editorialized against proposed greater restrictions of public access to Colorado marriage certificate/license records.)

A subsequent Denver, Colorado Rocky Mountain News article reports Colorado divorce courts are limiting public access to court files as a means of living within recent legislative budget restrictions. Jefferson County, Colorado Chief Judge Brooke Jackson emphasized his personal commitment to "open access to the courts," but explained his crafting a limited access policy:

There is no way our clerk's office has the time or manpower to go through thousands of files searching for and trying to remove or redact information ....

The article notes that Denver's divorce and family law courts have not implemented any such policies; at present, Adams, Arapahoe, Gunnison, Jefferson, Mesa and Montrose are restricting access to divorce and family law records because of costs.

For details of Mesa County's February, 2006 administrative order, see the Grand Junction Sentinel's article Open Records Under Attack on Several Fronts.)

See also a comprehensive article of the Denver Post on this issue, Judicial Districts Object to Public Access to Files.

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