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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill  10/12/2005


Let's face it. Not every marriage is made in heaven. Some may even be said to have been made in an entirely opposite place. As usual, your ancestor's troubles might have lead to records of genealogical value, in this case a divorce.

Contrary to the belief of some, divorce is not a late twentieth-century invention. Couples have always had problems, and divorce while uncommon was not entirely unheard of in an earlier era. Finding the records is the problem. Early divorces might have been granted by the colonial governing bodies or the state legislatures and these records may be in a state archives or library. Later divorces were typically granted by a county court and will typically be found at the county level.

The amount of information contained in these records varies, but generally increases over time. The person bringing the divorce case to court would have to show grounds for divorce, usually focusing on the behavior of the other spouse. Requirements for a divorce are governed by state statute and have changed significantly in the last two hundred years.

The content of divorce records can vary. Those granted by a colonial or statewide body, tend to provide sketchy information. Divorces granted by county courts may be more detailed. In some cases the records may include more detail than some descendants want to know.

What You Will Find
Generally speaking look for the following information in a county divorce record:

Usually a divorce will be granted in a county where at least one of the couple is residing. Residence in the county for a specified period of time is usually required. If the couple moved frequently, a search of the records of several counties may be necessary. If one of the parties married again, their subsequent marriage record may mention the county in which the divorce took place. I have even seen divorce decrees recorded in the miscellaneous records of the county where the marriage took place even though the divorce was granted in a different state.

Parted, but Not Divorced
It may be that your relatives "parted" but chose to not actually get divorced for either cultural or religious reasons. In these cases, there may still be court records, just not a divorce record per se. In this situation, one of the partners (usually the wife) may have sued for "separate maintenance." These records usually were heard in the same court as the divorces. If you know a couple "had troubles," search for a court case even if they were not actually divorced. My great-great-grandmother's sister filed for separate maintenance from her husband in 1916. They never divorced, but the case contains numerous petitions, filings, and responses. The names and ages of their minor children are listed as are a variety of other details, including:

There are also numerous "colorful" details and claims listed in the records as well. One must take certain things with a grain of salt in situations such as this. Each spouse (or their attorney) will paint themselves in the best possible light and exaggeration (or outright lying) is a very real possibility.

Sometimes family members will know that an ancestral couple was divorced, or had "trouble." Sometimes the divorce is considered so scandalous that no one ever talks about it. Census records may list your ancestor as divorced, which is a pretty big clue. In other cases, both spouses may be living apart, and either listed as married or widowed. A deed from the husband to the wife in her own right may indicate something was going on (or may not). Many did not want to talk about their divorce and if they had moved, they might not have wanted their new neighbors to know their actual marital status.

For Whom to Search?
I search for a divorce records on ancestors, their siblings, and "first" cousins. Not because I think they were all divorced and not because I am extremely nosy. The reason is that in a significant number of divorce cases there will be testimony of witnesses. Oftentimes these witnesses are other family members. That testimony may indicate how old a relative is, where she is living, or at least the fact that he is still alive. And if I'm really stuck, the divorce record of an aunt may tell me where she got married. That location may be a significant clue if I do not know where the family was originally from. Overlooking divorce records for your family may cause you to overlook significant clues. Divorces happen in all families.

For more on divorce records, consult the appropriate research guide from the Family History Library or Ancestry's Red Book.

Wrapping it Up
One hundred years ago, divorce was not as common as it was today. However, it did happen--it just was not talked about and the story might not have been passed down to the current generation. These records can be a goldmine.

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS). He conducts seminars and lectures nationally on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2005,

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