When should you shred your divorce papers?

There is no upside to keeping all the gory details stored in a box where your kids or someone else might find and read them. Take care of it now.

Even if you've piled up the divorce paperwork, no need to hang onto most of it.

SAN DIEGO, October 10, 2016 – People ask me from time to time what they should do with their divorce paperwork. It’s a common question with two answers: one from a legal perspective, and one from a personal perspective.

A divorce involves a lot more people than just you and your ex-spouse, even when you don’t have any children. Both of you have immediate and extended family, whether it is parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and then there are the stepparents, godparents, and other close family members and friends. There are often people who consider yourself close to without any kind of blood relationship. Your divorce has an effect on all of them to some extent.

The effect don’t end there. A divorce can also affect your professional relationships if the animosity creeps into the workplace. Some divorcing couples work together, work in a family business, or own a business together. Some have interacted professionally for years. Many couple met at work in the first place, and the relationship sometimes seems as if it “belongs” to the workplace.

How much divorce paperwork you have depends on whether you and your former spouse went through a lengthy, contentious divorce proceeding in the court system. Even without litigation, you may have complex relationships or major assets, like a business or property, which can kill a whole lot of trees.

Fights over property can be ugly. Ask the Sterlings about the Los Angeles Clippers or the McCourts about the Los Angeles Dodgers. Fights over child custody or child support can be even uglier, as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie may be about to find out.

Before I get into the details, let me be clear. Your actual FINAl divorce judgment itself should NOT be shredded. Keep a copy, but it doesn’t need to be stored somewhere easily accessible. A safe or a safe deposit box are both good choices. Copies of all your important papers should be in a firesafe location either in your home or offsite as a good preparedness practice.

Make the shredder your friend if you have a lot of divorce records sitting around. Photo: Wikimedia
Make the shredder your friend if you have a lot of divorce records sitting around. Photo: Wikimedia

Here’s the truth: putting your divorce paperwork through an industrial shredder might feel satisfying. But shredding the documents in your possession will not “erase” or “hide” any evidence of an ugly divorce hashed out in the courts. They are a permanent record and unless the record was sealed, they are public. Anyone can view them: you, your ex, your family, your children, the news media, the curious public.

When you go to court and air your dirty laundry, you have less privacy than on many of your social media websites, which isn’t a whole lot to begin with thanks to the creativity and drive of hackers these days.

Let this reality be a powerful motivator to try your best to keep your divorce out of the court system. Even when you are getting a divorce due to serious disagreements, try to find whatever guidance you need to get through your dissolution and work out a settlement you can file with the courts as a done deal. This preserves your privacy as much as possible, minimizing the exposure of the gory details.

Pursuing Alternative Dispute Resolutions such as Collaborative Divorce or mediation is one way to make this possible. In Collaborative Divorce, you agree to work with a team of professionals including attorneys, financial advisors, and coaches who are licensed in various mental health disciplines to help you work through your divorce in a way that preserves relationships within the family and reduces the amount of emotional stress, particularly when children are involved.

You may balk at the idea of hiring several professionals to handle your divorce, and it can seem daunting and expensive. But if you have children or property and need to work out agreements for both, you can save time and trauma relying on these professionals to provide advice and a buffer zone during your divorce so you and your ex-spouse can work things out away from public view. In a Collaborative Divorce, you file your settlement with the courts and the minimum amount of information is public, an enormous advantage. While it might cost more up front, it will same time which saves money. And what is your privacy worth to you?

Some people consider their divorce records a part of their family history. I disagree with this viewpoint. Divorce records merely state the fact you were once married and now divorced. What more do you need to know? What more does anyone else need to know?

Divorce documents contain a lot of sad information involving custody, child support, and the division of property. These do not benefit anyone who runs across them stored and forgotten in a box somewhere.

Imagine one of your family members running across these documents when going through your things after your death, or some other situation when you aren’t able to go through them yourself. Imagine being responsible for exposing your loved ones to all that pain from the past when they are already grieving.

Trash them now. It won’t guarantee that no one will ever go to court to dig them up, but it won’t be in anyone’s face.

If you are reading this and thinking ahead to ways you can insure this doesn’t happen to you, consider putting a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement in place. Any divorce settlement will be a lot less messy with a solid prenup. If you’re faced with a divorce, do what it takes to present a united front where your children are concerned. Children are always a couple’s most important asset.

Myra Chack Fleischer serves as Lead Counsel for Fleischer & Ravreby in Carlsbad, California with a focus on divorce, property, custody and support, settlement agreements, mediation, asset division and family law appeals. Read more Legally Speaking in Communities Digital News. Follow Myra on Twitter: @LawyerMyra. Fleischer can be reached via Google +

Copyright © 2016 by Fleischer & Ravreby

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