The Third Branch
Record retention is uniformly set statewide
By Sharon Millermon, Barron County Clerk of Circuit Court
Editor’s Note: This article was distributed to Barron County area news outlets as part of an ongoing outreach effort by court officials to improve public understanding and appreciation of the legal system in Wisconsin.
The length of time circuit court records are retained by the clerk of circuit court office is a topic frequently discussed between the public and staff. Opinions vary widely depending on one’s involvement or interest in a particular case whether it is believed the file ought to be retained forever or destroyed immediately. Both opinions can hold valid points.
It is important to know the length of time a record is retained. The clerk of circuit court office doesn’t determine the length of time a record is retained. Wisconsin Supreme Court Rule 72 sets forth the minimum retention period for all case types. The most common case types with their retention periods are:
- Traffic, DNR and other non-criminal cases (TR and FO) – five years from conviction
- Civil and small claims (CV and SC) along with any case that may have a civil judgment entered – 20 years
- Family and paternity (FA and PA) – 30 years plus an additional seven years after the final payment
- Criminal misdemeanor and criminal traffic (CM and CT) – 30 years from conviction
- Criminal felony (CF) – 50-75 years from conviction depending on the severity of the felony
Most people would like to see traffic citations disappear as soon as possible. Normally those files are destroyed five years after conviction unless a civil judgment is entered as a consequence for non-payment. If a judgment for non-payment is entered, the retention period increases to 20 years from the date of entry of judgment regardless of when paid thereafter.
It is especially critical to retain court documents for people that have accessed the court system at a young age. On more than one occasion, an individual has appeared at the clerk of circuit court counter to obtain a copy of their Order for Change of Name that was granted many years ago. The person, now an adult, may want to obtain a passport and must prove they can legally use another name than the one indicated on their birth certificate or want to apply for social security benefits. This is an example of a “civil” file and the file will be destroyed after 20 years. If all necessary steps were not taken to change the records retained by the state, the individual may find it necessary to re-file a case to accomplish the previous outcome.
Prior to destroying the physical file, it must be offered to the State Historical Society. In the past, the Historical Society accepted all family case types and litigants were still able to obtain copies of needed court documents. Recently the Historical Society has declined family files and they are destroyed after the elapsed retention period. The Historical Society is still interested in most criminal cases, resulting in those files being preserved. Most of Barron County’s records are stored at the Library Learning Center at UW-Stout in Menomonie, Wis.
It is always a best practice to keep important court documents in a safe place. Often an individual doesn’t realize the document’s importance until it is needed for a passport application, employment purposes, social security benefits, credit reports, etc.