Alabamans may remember the 2015 sealing of Governor Bentley’s divorce records. For many, it was more surprising that divorce records are usually public than that a governor could keep his private.

Most of us don’t want the world listening in on our divorce, with its possible money or behavior mistakes and even discussions of children’s ages, genders and schedules. Aside from becoming governor, how can Alabamans keep their divorces private?

The right to know what our courts do

Openness is a key value of American courts. Keeping cases public helps keep courts focused on the best interests of Alabamans.

But guided by Alabama law and the facts, judges can make exceptions. For example, the records of juvenile offenders and victims of human trafficking can be sealed under the right circumstances.

Divorces are public, unless the judge makes an exception.

Some reasonable exceptions can limit openness

In 1993, the Alabama Supreme Court slightly opened the door for judges to consider sealing court records in limited situations.

Those include cases that involve a trade secret or a matter of national security, or that:

  • Promote scandal or defamation
  • Pertain to wholly private family matters, such as divorce, child custody, or adoption
  • Pose a serious threat of harassment, exploitation, physical intrusion” or other specific harm
  • Pose a threat to third persons

In such cases, the challenge is showing that your desire for privacy rises above the public’s right to access.

Mediation in Alabama is private

Mediation is a legal and well-established procedure for finding agreement. It is not for everyone and some couples need to battle it out in court. But in some cases, Alabama court make divorcing couples try mediation.

Mediation is largely private by law. What you say, propose, debate and, to some extent, agree to cannot be made public.

If they want, a couple can turn to a mediator to iron out the terms before filing for divorce, and then present the results in divorce court. Alternately, Alabama’s divorce court givens chance to try mediation after filing. Either way, privacy interests are only one of several good reasons to try to make mediation work.

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