Child custody rules are determined by state laws so they're not uniform, but temporary and final custody orders usually become public court records in most states after they're filed. State laws may make exceptions that prevent access to these records under certain circumstances for public policy reasons, such as when they contain abuse allegations or it's necessary to protect minors' identities.
Private Custody Arrangements
Custody papers don't necessarily have to be filed with the court. When unmarried parents split or married parents separate by agreement but they don't legally divorce, they can reach a child custody agreement that sets out terms for where the child will live, whether one parent will give the other parent financial support, and when the noncustodial parent will see the child. When both parents sign a written document that explains these arrangements, the document becomes a legally binding contract – but it's not a court order so it's not a public record.
Temporary Custody Orders
When parents can't agree on custody arrangements, they must ask a judge to decide on terms for them. This involves filing a petition for a custody order or filing for divorce. In either case, a fair amount of time may pass before the parents can actually get into court for the judge to issue a final order. In the meantime, the judge will normally issue a temporary order that will address the situation until the final outcome of the case. This type of order becomes part of the public-accessible court record of the case.
If final custody orders are never determined – such as if the parents don't finalize their divorce – the temporary order will eventually expire, but it will remain a matter of public record.
Final Custody Orders
Final court orders are usually accessible to the public, but most states make exceptions and will exclude certain cases or information from the public record under certain circumstances. For example, California makes exceptions for case types that are confidential in and of themselves, such as those involving adoption. California also allows for certain portions of a case to be sealed or made confidential, such as custody recommendations and evaluations by professionals.
Sometimes sensitive issues can be deleted from the public court record. For example, Maryland also automatically excludes adoption records, as well as guardianship termination records without a court order that expressly permits it. A Maryland parent can also file a motion with the court requesting that certain documents be removed from the public record. Similarly, Indiana automatically excludes adoption records from public access.
If you want your custody arrangements to be sealed or hidden, you can often file a motion with the court requesting that it remove the order from public access. However, interested parties can ask the court for an order allowing access. Because family law varies by jurisdiction, contacting the court clerk is the best way to determine if child custody papers are part of the public record in a particular area. If you want to seal yours, consult with a local attorney to find out if it's possible and learn the rules for doing so.