When you get divorced, there’s lots of paperwork involved. Your divorce begins with paperwork – you or your spouse files a divorce petition – and ends with paperwork when your final divorce order is filed with the court. In the interim, your divorce lawyer will file lots of documents on your behalf, including various motions related to the specific circumstances of your divorce, such as property division and a child support order if you are a parent of a minor child. You should keep a copy of everything for your personal records, because you might need to access them in the future to pursue modifications, to enforce orders or to prove that you are legally divorced. However, if you lose something or don't get a copy, you may be able to obtain a copy from the court.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
The term divorce papers typically refers to a divorce petition, but can also refer to a variety of divorce-related documents. You can get copies of these documents from the court or from your attorney.
Getting a Petition for Divorce
To begin the divorce process, you must file a petition for divorce. In some states, such as Illinois, this is known as a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage. This is a state-level document that can be obtained from the court of the county where you live or the county where your spouse lives, or you can download it online.
If you are not the filing spouse, your spouse may serve you with this petition. Depending on your jurisdiction, you may receive it from your spouse or from the sheriff. It is also possible to receive this paperwork from your spouse’s lawyer, through the local newspaper or even on your social media account.
Obtaining a Copy of a Divorce Decree
An easy way to obtain a copy of your divorce settlement is to ask your lawyer for a copy. However, in many jurisdictions, both parties receive a copy of their divorce decree immediately upon the divorce being finalized. If you are not in one of these jurisdictions, and you don't have an attorney, you can request a copy from the court that handled your divorce.
Getting Specific Divorce Documents
Like obtaining the document that finalized your divorce, you can also request copies of other divorce-related documents from your lawyer. If you don't have a lawyer, you can get them from the court where you completed the process.
How easily and inexpensively you can recover these documents depends on your jurisdiction and how recently you divorced. In some jurisdictions this process costs nothing, and in others, there is a small fee. If you were divorced a long time ago, it can take longer for the court to recover your documents. This is because some jurisdictions move divorce records into their archives after a specific amount of time passes. The easiest way to ensure that you receive your document in a timely manner is to file your request for it in writing and follow the court’s specified procedure for requesting documents.
Who Can Access Divorce Paperwork?
Most divorce information is public record, which means anybody can access it. This includes your original divorce petition and all relevant court orders, like a property division order and a child support order. Some jurisdictions may keep other types of documents, such as documents in a case of domestic violence or documents that name minor children, sealed.
Keep in mind that which documents are public record and which are not depend on your jurisdiction. You can also file a motion to have one or more of your divorce records sealed, which removes them from the public record. This is typically done to protect children’s identities and to conceal sensitive information like the divorcing parties’ Social Security numbers.
Divorces are handled at the county level and governed according to state law, not federal law. This means that the procedure you follow to access your divorce paperwork will likely be different from the procedure your friend in another state follows. If you are unsure about how to obtain a copy of a divorce-related document, ask your lawyer for help.