Going through a divorce is difficult on many levels. Your client may feel like his or her personal life is laid bare for everyone to see. As an attorney, you can’t protect your client from the emotional exposure involved in divorce, but you can take measures to protect your client’s financial laundry from being publicly aired.
Actress Zooey Deschanel, who plays Jess on TV’s The New Girl, experienced the lack of privacy that often comes along with divorce first hand when her financial information was reportedly attached to her divorce filing. But she didn’t have to be so exposed.
Here are seven things you can do to protect your client’s sensitive financial information from reaching the public view:
- Redact Social Security numbers from documents filed with the court, as permitted by Fam C §2024.5.
- Never include a complete bank account number in a judgment or court order. Use the last few digits of the account number only, so that the court and parties may identify it.
- Never file a tax return in a court file; instead, if the tax return is needed for a court hearing, bring it to court, but make sure it is returned at the end of the proceeding.
- If the court appoints a financial expert or a forensic accountant (Evid C §730) to value a community property business and prepare a report for the court, obtain a court order from the court or by stipulation that the report will be sealed.
- Use a stipulated judgment or marital settlement agreement that can describe the division of specific property in a general way and refer to specific details in additional documentation that won’t be filed with the court. This additional documentation may be kept by the parties or their attorneys, just in case a future dispute arises or enforcement is required.
- If the parties have already agreed to the division of specific financial assets and properties, the petition, judgment, and additional case file documents need only generally refer to the documents that are already in the possession of each spouse.
- Take all reasonable steps to keep sensitive financial information out of the court record. If necessary, bifurcate the financial issues and attempt to resolve them through mediation, or another ADR method. (Keep in mind that under Evid C §1120(a), mediation confidentiality statutes do not necessarily make inadmissable evidence that is otherwise discoverable outside mediation.) Also, as courts implement “family centered case resolution,” consider requesting a “family centered case resolution conference” to “[provide] financial and property settlement opportunities to the parties and their attorneys with judicial officers or qualified attorney settlement officers.” See Cal Rules of Ct 5.83(c)(2), (c)(6)(D), (d), (g).
For everything you need to know to seal family court records that include financial information, turn to CEB’s Family Law Financial Discovery, chaps, 5, 19. Also check out CEB’s Practice Under the California Family Code: Dissolution, Legal Separation, Nullity, chap 13 on discovery.
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