By all accounts, only two weeks elapsed between the filing and finalization of Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert’s Oklahoma divorce. This is far from the long, drawn-out Hollywood divorce cases of more than one Kardashian sister and a host of other celebrities. The couple also managed to keep all details of their divorce private when the judge agreed to seal their file.
However, some alleged the Shelton-Lambert divorce record sealing amounted to special treatment due to their celebrity status. Former Oklahoma state representative Aaron Stiles cried foul when the judge sealed all records associated with the country superstars’ case. (Stiles authored a state open records law that makes it difficult to seal divorce, civil and other public cases in Oklahoma.)
It’s Easier to Seal Family Law Case Records in Texas
Had Shelton and Lambert divorced in Texas (where the couple married), keeping their divorce details private probably wouldn’t have made headlines. According to Connatser Family Law Attorney Christine Powers Leatherberry, “Texas is more lenient about sealing family law case records than many states.”
As Christine explains, “While Texas also has a strong open records rule regarding court records under Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 76a, there are exceptions to this rule. In fact, there is a carve-out that makes it easier to seal records if it’s a family law case. The rule specifically states it exempts ‘documents filed in an action arising under the Family Code.’
In Texas, all you have to allege is that the sealing of the record 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.”
Sealing an entire divorce case isn’t the only way to protect private matters either.
“Even if we don’t seal the entire divorce record, the parties can enter into a protective order and mark certain documents confidential, including deposition transcripts, particularly when sensitive financial information, domestic violence, affairs, unsavory behavior or substance abuse are involved. Otherwise anyone could look up the details of the divorce online,” says Christine
Seek Multiple Layers of Protection During Your Texas Divorce
If you’re planning to get a divorce in Texas and you want to keep your private matters out of the public eye, there are multiple layers of protection available to you.
1. Mark individual documents as sensitive.
Your lawyer can include a BOLD notation at the top of the file that says THIS DOCUMENT CONTAINS SENSITIVE DATA. This can include driver’s license numbers, birthdates, social security numbers and other personal information you want to keep private. This tactic is readily accepted, because revealing such information could result in identity theft, invasion of privacy, and can even endanger children.
“Again, you’re not necessarily sealing the entire record, but those documents marked as sensitive will not be available online,” says Christine.
2. Conceal your identity and other details in the divorce decree.
Per Christine, “In divorce decrees, we won’t necessarily include a fault ground for divorce, full bank account numbers, birthdates, initials, etc. We sometimes use random initials, especially for high profile individuals and celebrity cases.”
3. Seek a protective order.
The next level of privacy protection is to file a motion for protective order or enter into an agreed protective order (sometimes called a confidentiality order). Here you can list everything that you want to keep confidential, such as documents and deposition transcripts.
Parties may either agree to a protective order, or if there is no agreement, a party may still request one from the court.
“For example, one party may admit to having an affair or using drugs during a deposition and want to mark those transcripts confidential. Consequently, if there is a protective order in place, the deposition wouldn’t be available to the public, even if it were attached to an exhibit to a motion. Any documents produced or allegations pertaining to those same actions, such as a stint in rehab, could also be kept confidential,” Christine explains.
4. Seal the entire divorce record.
As noted above, it is common in Texas for one or both parties to ask that the entire divorce record be sealed, and Rule 76a allows for this in most cases. According to Christine, “A third party can file suit to unseal the records of a divorce case, but it’s difficult to unseal records and doesn’t happen very often.”
5. Include a confidentiality clause in the divorce agreement.
“At the end of the divorce, some parties choose to include a confidentiality clause in the divorce agreement in addition to sealing the files. This helps prevent details of the divorce from going out to the public, or at least gives a party legal recourse if the other party violates this provision.
In addition, we usually recommend professional athletes and other celebrities include a book deal clause, which prohibits the spouse from writing a tell-all book. If they violate this prohibition, the penalty can be that all proceeds go to the athlete or celebrity. We also recommend this clause for high-profile clients seeking premarital agreements,” says Christine.
6. Opt for a collaborative divorce.
For people who really want to avoid the spotlight, Christine recommends they consider collaborative law as an option, because it provides a much higher level of confidentiality than a litigated divorce. The spouses drive the divorce process, not the judge, and proceedings are held in private, behind closed doors.
“In Texas, just about anyone can go into the courtroom during a litigated celebrity case if they want to, because it’s an open courthouse. The court is typically open to anyone, except potential witnesses (other than the parties). Oftentimes, lawyers invoke ‘The Rule’ to request the court order potential witnesses to leave the courtroom. Otherwise, a witness may hear the testimony of other witnesses, which could taint their testimony,” explains Christine.
Keep in mind, collaborative divorce isn’t for everyone. You should speak with a family law attorney who understands the pros and cons of all divorce options, before making a decision.
Learn more about collaborative divorce in Texas in this earlier post:
Don’t Stop There, You Can Also Protect Your Privacy If You …
Work through as much as possible before you go to court.
“The more you can work out with your spouse on your own, and the more you can agree to in advance, rather than in the courtroom, the more confidentiality you should maintain. Not only will there be fewer depositions and paperwork, you could end up saving time and money too,” Christine says.
Hire a family law attorney who takes confidentiality seriously.
A good divorce attorney puts the client’s needs first and won’t take advantage of the opportunity to raise his or her own public profile. As Christine explains, “They won’t be tooting their own horn in front of the cameras, and will not take TMZ’s calls. If privacy is important to you, do a little research on potential attorneys, before you hire a lawyer.”