In August, Gannett Co. and The New York Times asked the New York Supreme Court to unseal the 1990 divorce records of Donald and Ivana Trump. About the same time, a Hennepin County District Court judge in Minneapolis approved a request by the Minneapolis Star Tribune to unseal the 2006 divorce records of the late, rock star Prince and his ex-wife Manuela Testolini.
On September 22, 2016, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Frank Nervo refused to unseal the files – saying he has no power or business doing so. Since each state views privacy rights differently, we asked Dallas Divorce Attorney Christine Powers Leatherberry to weigh in on how the unsealing of the Trump and Prince divorce records might play out in Texas.
According to Christine, “In Texas, it is presumed that all court records are to be open to the public. What is different here from other states is Texas excludes documents filed in actions arising under the Family Code from the definition of court records. So it is difficult to unseal divorce records in Texas.”
The only exception – to the exception – for unsealing divorce records in Texas is when a public official is involved.
Divorce Records of Public Officials Could Be Unsealed in Texas
In the case of a mayor, governor or someone who is running for public office (like Donald Trump), the court may consider unsealing his or her divorce records if the judge believes information in the sealed documents should be made available to the general public.
As Christine explains, “For example, if a public official’s ex-spouse filed a protective order against him or her, a Texas judge may agree to unseal those divorce records if he or she believes the public has a right to know about those details.”
According to the USA TODAY, The Trumps’ divorce was granted on the grounds of “cruel and inhumane treatment,” though the couple eventually agreed to a settlement.
“Bottom line, it’s pretty hard to unseal divorce records in Texas, unless it’s a public official. Since Donald Trump is running for President, the press in Texas would have a decent chance of unsealing his divorce records if the Trumps’ divorce had been finalized here,” Christine says.
It’s Easier for Celebrities to Keep Divorce Records Sealed in Texas
With celebrities like Prince, the Texas family court is less likely to find that the public has a right to know what information is sealed in their divorce documents. However, it is important to ask your family law attorney to take the appropriate steps to keep your divorce records private.
“The other thing that is unique in Texas is that an order sealing or unsealing records cannot be reconsidered if an interested third party had notice. So if you ask a judge to revise his or her position, and if the newspaper had notice of the hearing to begin with (2006 in the Prince-Testolini records), the newspaper’s request would likely be denied anyway,” says Christine.
As a high-profile, Dallas divorce attorney, Christine regularly petitions the family court to seal her clients’ divorce records. Typical language for a request to seal may be: The sealing of the records in this action will not have an adverse effect on the public health or safety, and the records do not involve matters that should be available to the general public.
Texas Protects the Privacy of Parties to a Divorce – Especially Children
“The state of Texas stands firm when it comes to protecting the privacy of people going through divorce and custody and child support modifications. If it’s in the best interest of the children involved to keep divorce records sealed, they generally will remain sealed.
“So if the parents had a messy divorce, or there were any abuse allegations involving the children, it’s going to be really difficult to unseal records from that divorce. To the State of Texas, children’s privacy really does matter in the long-term. Since the Trumps had three children together, that might work in his favor here in Texas,” says Christine.
Christine Powers Leatherberry is a compassionate family lawyer who is equally comfortable in the courtroom as she is counseling her clients one-on-one. She is a past chair of the Dallas Junior Board of the Big Brothers Big Sisters and was a Big Sister to the same Little for 11 years. To learn more about your right to privacy during divorce, please call (214) 617-1583 to speak confidentially with a knowledgeable and considerate member of the Connatser Family Law team.