Michigan family law attorney seeks privacy for divorce cases

In most counties in Michigan, all court filings are available online. This means all the dirty secrets of a divorcing couple are available for family, neighbors, co-workers and the general public to find via an Internet search. Jessica Woll, managing partner of Woll & Woll, P.C., a Michigan-based divorce and family law firm with a particular expertise in complex family law issues, wants to bring attention to the issue in order to make divorce cases involving minor children private to protect the family, especially the children.

The process of divorce begins with the filing of a complaint. Once filed, the case is assigned to a judge and the documents filed with the court become available to purchase online shortly thereafter. In working to reach a settlement in a divorce case, messy issues can arise, making the situation difficult for children and adults involved.

"In an attempt to get interim relief from the court for a particularly thorny issue, a party can file a motion; what is placed in the motion is up to the filing spouse and his or her attorney," Woll said. "For instance, if one parent wants the spouse to have supervised parenting time because of alcohol concerns, the allegations about the drinking can be put in the motion. If the alcohol-abusing spouse has a DUI, the other parent can attach a copy of the police report in support of the claim. This motion is then available online for a nominal fee for anyone to read."

Woll stresses the negative impact scenarios like this can have on children.

"If a divorcing couple has nosy neighbors who want to know the status of the divorce case, all the neighbors need to do is pull up the divorce on the county court website. The case docket sheet appears and shows everything filed in the case, including a request for supervised parenting time and any answers and/or counter claims that were filed," Woll said. "If the neighbors want more details, they can order and pay for a copy of the motion, receive the document electronically and then share the contents with anyone they choose."

Scenarios like this happen all the time according to Woll.

"Children of divorcing parents have enough to deal with in the separation of their parents; to have friends and neighbors gossiping behind their backs is harmful to the emotional well-being of a child," Woll said. "The information doesn't stop at substance abuse, either. Marriages also end because of pornography use and extramarital relationships and none of this information is off-limits in a motion. The harmful effects of making such information publicly available online almost always out-weigh the benefits."

Until the law allowing access is changed, Woll offers three suggestions to protect a family while going through the divorce process.

If it is necessary to fight for a sensitive subject, such as supervised parenting time due to an addiction, keep pleadings as general as possible.

When a couple and/or spouse know there is damaging information that could become part of the court file, try to get the other spouse to agree in advance to a protective order that only allows such information to be used in ways that best protect the family's privacy.

When emotions are running high, which is typical during the breakdown of a marriage, couples should seek out a good divorce counselor to help them reach decisions with minimum court assistance.

"We claim to be a society that puts the best interest of our children first. If that is the case, the current court practice must be changed," said Woll. "We need legislation to allow for the implementation of a privatized system to protect a family's privacy during divorce."

Woll recently met with Michigan Senator Marty Knollenberg to discuss the matter and found him to be receptive.

"From my meeting, it is clear that Sen. Knollenberg is interested in protecting the privacy of Michigan families," Woll said. "Therefore, I am hopeful he will take this matter to Lansing."

Published: Mon, Jun 08, 2015