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What Are California Family Court Records?
California Family Court records are the official written documentation of the processes and events involved in the trials and hearings of domestic relations cases handled by California Family Courts. These documents include case files and dockets as well as final judgements and orders. Examples of Family Court records include divorce decrees, child custody orders, and adoption records.
What Is a Family Court in California?
In California, a Family Court is a division of the Superior Court. It handles civil cases relating to Family Law matters and involving families and children. Its jurisdiction includes domestic relations cases involving:
- Divorce, separation, and nullity
- Mediation and arbitration
- Domestic violence and restraining orders
- Elder and dependent adult abuse
- Paternity actions requiring establishing parentage
- Spousal support and family support
- Child support, child custody, and visitation arrangements
The proceedings of this court follow California Rules of Court Family Law. This is a set of regulations determining how Family Courts in California handle different types of cases under their jurisdiction.
California Family Courts do more than hear Family Law cases. They also have Family Court Services. These are departments that offer confidential meditations for families with children when there are custody and visitation disputes. They also provide mediations for juvenile delinquency and dependency cases. The mental health professionals working in Family Law Services also provide Family Courts with reports necessary for making decisions about child custody and support as well as visitation arrangements.
Family Court Records can include marriage records and divorce records. These records contain personal information of those involved and their maintenance is critical should anyone involved wish to make changes. Because of this both marriage and divorce records can be considered more difficult to locate and obtain than other public records, and may not be available through government sources or third party public record websites.
How to File and Serve Family Court Papers in California
California allows citizens to file Family Law case documents in person and by mail. You can also use a fax filing agency to submit these documents by fax. Come to the courthouse to file documents in person. Some Family law documents, such as restraining orders, are best filed in person because they have to be processed at the counter.
When filing documents by mail, make sure they comply with the California Rules of Court for Family Law cases. Such documents must be legible and should be typed or printed. Filed papers should also be in triplicates and pre-punched in the standard two-hole position. Filing fees are payable in cash (only for in-person filings), check, money order, and credit card.
Serving a paper on the other party named in a Family Court case is a necessary step for the case to proceed. This involves handing over court documents describing your request before the court. A person is served when they receive these court documents. Note that documents such as court summons, petitions, and request for orders must be filed before they are served. After a service, the person that served court documents must fill a Proof of Service form and file it with the court.
Who Can Serve the Defendant?
Under California law, only disinterested parties can serve Family Court papers. This means they must not be party to the Family law case named in the documents. These individuals must also be at least 18 years old. Those capable of serving Family Court papers in California include:
- County Sheriffs
- Professional Process Servers
California approves different ways of serving Family Court papers. Besides the people listed above, these documents can also be served by:
- By mail
- Substituted service
Even when serving court documents by mail, only a person not involved in the case can send them to the defendant. If repeated attempts to serve the papers fail, you can opt for substituted service by having the documents delivered to someone else at the residence of the defendant.
You need the court’s permission to serve court papers by publication and posting. The court can grant you permission to publish documents, such as summons, in a newspaper distributed where the other party lives or works. If you cannot find the defendant’s address, you may choose service by posting. This involves putting up a notice at the courthouse.
What Is Contempt of Court in Family Law in California?
Contempt of court in a Family Law case refers to one party’s willful violation of a valid court order. This most commonly happens following the resolution of a divorce case. One party may deliberately disobey the court’s order regarding visitation rules, child and spousal support, asset division, or marital debit. Other common instances of contempt of court in Family Law matters include refusal to pay the attorney fees of the other party and violation of restraining orders.
Generally, contempt of court in Family law cases falls under civil contempt. Civil contempt is, generally, not punishable by jail time. However, most California Family Courts handle contempt of court in divorce cases as criminal contempt and may punish such with jail time. Depending on the severity of the contempt, a California Family Court can also punish convicted spouses and parents with community service and/or fines.
How to Look Up Family Law Cases in California
California provides public access to cases filed in its Family Courts. While some Family Court records are confidential, listings of cases handled by this court are public. Anyone can also examine the dockets and calendars of California Family Courts to view the status of any case and upcoming hearing dates.
The different ways to look up family law cases in California include:
- In person
- By phone
- By mail
The Family Law Divisions of California Superior Courts allow the public to view case indexes and view case documents online. To find a Family Law case online, visit the website of the Superior Court in the county where the case was filed. Navigate to the Family Law section to find the court’s online case portal. This portal usually offers a Case Search function that allows anyone to search by name and case number.
Note that while California makes most Family Court records publicly available online, you cannot find case information or view the records of paternity disputes and cases involving parentage online. California makes such cases confidential by operation of law under its Uniform Parentage Act. Also unavailable are cases sealed by court order. Examples of such cases include those involving mental health issues, adoption, and child custody arrangements for unmarried parents.
You can also visit a California Superior Court location to view case indexes and files in person. Head to the Family Law Division Clerk’s Office to request these records. You cannot view sealed records in person unless you are party to the case, an attorney of a party to the case, or have a court order for accessing those sealed records. Some courthouses also have public computer terminals for viewing court records.
When accessing a California Family Law case at the courthouse, you can expect to see a complete list of documents filed during the trial, summary of proceedings, and names of parties to the case. Note that old court records may not be readily available for viewing because they are stored offsite. If you are looking for Family Law cases filed prior to 1990, you should call the Clerk’s Office ahead to request case file retrieval from the court’s offsite storage center.
Some California counties provide case information over the phone. You can find the contact phone number on the Family Law section of the county’s Superior Court website. Only limited case information are available over the phone. Generally, Family Courts only provide information about case status, court hearings, and mediation services over the phone.
Family Court Clerk may also take requests to perform case record searches on behalf of the public. Where this option is available, you can download a Request for Record Search form from the court’s website. Clerk offices charge nominal fees for this service. You must mail the completed form along with the fee to the county’s Family Law division address provided on the form.
How to Request Family Court Records in California
California also allows anyone to request copies of public Family Court records online, in person, and by mail. These courts can provide plain and certified copies of available records. You can request for Family Law records online on the website of the Superior Court that heard the case you intend to view. The court charges a nominal fee for each copy requested. Note that certified copies cost more than regular copies. This fee is usually payable by credit/debit card. After submitting your request and payment online, the court will send the requested copies by mail.
To obtain copies of court records in person or by mail, you must submit a completed Copy Request form. Bring or mail this form, along with a valid photo ID and payment for the copies, to the Family Law Division Clerk’s Office of the Superior Court in the county where the case was filed. Some Clerk’s Office also accept phone requests for copies of court records.
Publicly available records are accessible from some third-party websites. These websites offer the benefit of not being limited by geographical record availability and can often serve as a starting point when researching specific or multiple records. To find a record using the search engines on these sites, interested parties must provide:
- The name of someone involved providing it is a not a juvenile
- The assumed location of the record in question such as a city, county, or state name
Third party sites are not government sponsored websites, and record availability may differ from official channels.
Are Family Law Cases Public Record in California?
Yes. By default, California Family Court records are public records, and anyone can inspect and copy them. However, some Family Law records are made confidential by law or sealed by the court at the behest of the parties involved.
While California keeps Family Law records open and publicly accessible, it seals paternity case files and makes court records that identify minors and victims of abuse confidential. Certain documents within publicly available records are also sealed. These include drug test results, mediation reports, psychological evaluations, and financial information. Sealed court records and confidential case files are only available to the parties involved in those cases as well as their attorneys of record.
Are Custody Papers Public Record in California?
Yes. California makes temporary and final child custody orders publicly accessible. However, there are exceptions to this rule. First, unmarried parents may choose to have private custody agreements. While these are legally binding documents, they are not court orders and, therefore, not public records.
Married parents who wish to make their child custody records confidential may choose to be separated rather than divorced. While separated, such parents can also make private custody agreements. California does make certain court-ordered custody agreements confidential. Such custody orders must be part of cases regarded by law as confidential in and of themselves. Examples of such cases are paternity and child adoption cases.
Not every part of custody papers is made available to the public. California Family Courts will redact or seal files relating to mental health evaluation and custody recommendations.
Are California Divorce Records Sealed or Public Records?
California makes divorce records available to the public. While the state’s Family Courts do not seal divorce records on their own, one or both parties involved in a dissolution may request the court make their records confidential. The court requires a “narrowly tailored” request that gives specific and cogent reasons to file a divorce case under seal. It also weighs the potential damage of making the divorce records public to the requesting party against the need to uphold the court’s duty to make its records available to the public.
A California Family Court is more likely to grant a request to seal part of a divorce record than all of it. Commonly given reasons for sealing divorce records include the need to:
- Protect the identities of children
- Protect victims of domestic abuse
- Keep financial information confidential
- Keep sensitive business information from the public domain
How Do I Find Divorce Records in California?
There are three types of divorce records you can request. These are:
- Divorce decree
- Divorce case file
- Divorce certificate
A divorce decree is a document containing details of the final judgement of the dissolution of marriage. It spells out the terms of the divorce including information about custody arrangements, spousal and child support, and asset division. This is a court document. You can request a copy from the Family Division of a California Superior Court located in the county where the case was filed.
A divorce case file is also available from a California Family Court. In addition to a decree/judgement, it also contains documents from every stage of the divorce process from initiation to finalization.
To obtain copies of divorce decrees and case files in California, visit the court that heard the case or submit a request by mail. You can find the mailing and street addresses of the courthouse on its website. If you opt to submit a mail request, download a Family or Divorce Records Request Form from this website. The website and form will provide additional information about applicable copy fees and other requirements that must be included with your request.
A divorce certificate is a document that also provides a record of marriage dissolution. It is useful for divorced individuals looking to change their names or remarry. This document provides the names of both parties as well as when and where they obtained their divorce. This is not a court document. The California Department of Public Health issues divorce certificates for divorces recorded between 1962 and June 1984. Visit the Vital Records section of its website to find more information about obtaining copies of California divorce certificates.
Both government websites and organizations may offer divorce and marriage records. Similarly, third party public record websites can also provide these types of records. But because third party organizations are not operated or sponsored by the government, record availability may vary. Further, marriage and divorce records are considered highly private and are often sealed, meaning availability of these types of records cannot be guaranteed.