When should you shred your divorce documents?

When should you shred your divorce documents?

Using the shredder for divorce records

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

SAN DIEGO, December 17, 2014 – As another year comes to a close, many of us begin preparing our documents for tax season just ahead. Others use this time of year as work slows down with people out on vacation to clean up our files and get organized.

With identity theft a serious concern, shredding documents is the wisest course of action. But many people aren’t sure what documents they can shred.

When you research this question online, there are some universally accepted guidelines. Shred tax documents more than seven years old; monthly credit card bills and bank statements; any receipts with your signature, account numbers, PINs, or Social Security numbers; benefits forms from insurance companies; credit card offers or courtesy checks, even the unsolicited ones you get in the mail.

You are always advised to keep certain documents forever in a secured location such as a safe-deposit box: birth, death, and marriage certificates, Social Security cards, military discharge paperwork, estate-planning paperwork including wills, loan and title paperwork until the items in question are sold.

Divorce paperwork is on the “keeper” list too. But along with the actual legal document declaring that you are officially divorced according to the court in your state, what about all the paperwork that gets generated along the way? What about financial documents? What about declarations with personal information? How about statements, depositions, and court transcripts? There can be a whole lot of embarrassing or ugly information in these documents. What should you do with them?

After your divorce proceedings are completed, and you have had a chance to catch your breath and settle into your new life, you may never want to see these documents again. For your own mental health, why would you want to revisit a part of your life that is painful?

So you keep them in a box in the closet, under the bed, or in the basement. You pack them away and vow you’re never going to look at them again. But years from now, when you die, would you want anyone to find them after you are gone? What if the people who find them are your kids, and they open that box and read all the gory details?

There are people who believe divorce paperwork is part of family history, and whether or not this history is painful, it’s a reality and should be preserved.

The Gay Divorcee

Most people don’t want their divorce to become public entertainment, but unless you resolve your issues outside the courts, the matter is a public record. Photo: Wikimedia

Some people who commented thought she should shred them. Others said they were part of family history and should be kept. But wouldn’t most of these docs be in the public record anyway? And what if she ever needs to provide proof that she’s divorced?

First, let’s make it clear exactly what it is you absolutely DO need to keep: a copy of the divorce decree, the piece of paper that states the specific legal date of your divorce, with a judge’s signature on the bottom. This is the single piece of paperwork you should keep.

As for the rest, forget about the family history issue. I don’t see this information as part of your family history to be put on display, whether or not you are alive or dead. All that anyone “needs” to know is the basic legal fact that two people married, and then they divorced.

All the supporting paperwork contains a lot of sad, unpleasant information having to do with child custody, financial assets, the division of property and perhaps spousal support. There isn’t any reason to keep these. Shred them without a minute’s hesitation.

But bear this in mind: shredding these if they are part of the court record will not destroy them permanently. Anyone who want to go to the time and trouble of going to the court in person could research them and look them all up. This takes some effort and a person would have to be sufficiently motivated to do this, but it’s not difficult.

This raises a critically important issue that you need to deal with before you get divorced. Do you really want to risk your children, your relatives, or even nosy neighbors or news media going through all this information and learning your most ugly and private personal details? Most people do not. But if you and your spouse go into battle over your divorce and litigate it in court, you give up virtually all right to your privacy. This is a steep price to pay. Think long and carefully before you go this direction.

Consider a divorce method such as mediation or collaborative divorce to preserve your privacy. You still work with legal, financial, and psychological experts who can guide you to an equitable outcome that is far healthier, even when you and your spouse initially disagree about what you want to happen. If you pledge to keep working together toward an outcome you can both live with, you won’t ever have to live with the thought that you have no secrets left.

As for your shredding project, trash those divorce papers (with the exception of the actual divorce certificate) without looking back. Then cross your fingers that no one will ever set foot in court to research anything ever again.

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 +

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