September 22nd, 2012

Divorce and Genealogy

Virtually everything about genealogy can be extremely easy or effectively impossible or any degree of difficulty in between. Usually, for example, you know your own name and date of birth and have a general idea of where you were born. Easy. But some people do not know the name they had when they were born and may not even know their own date of birth. Difficult. I could go on. I've run across stories of people who were adopted by people who were adopted, by people who were adopted, etc. -- all closed or at least obscure, each layer presenting another brick wall. But a lot of us know who our grandparents were and can track down their DOB and perhaps place of birth without too much difficulty.

I come from a state -- Washington -- that has made a huge effort to digitize a lot of birth, marriage and death records, regardless of whether the person is living or not (okay, for the death ones, obviously not living. Or we would hope not anyway), and put it online to be freely accessible without charge. But like all of these projects, it is incomplete, particularly for the most populous county (duh). I cannot, for example, find a copy of my grandparents' presumably Skagit marriage certificate. I cannot find a copy of _my_ marriage certificate. But, you know, whatever. You get what you get.

Divorce is a common fact of life, and it's easy to think it is like BMD records. And it shares some characteristics with them. For example, mid 20th century newspapers commonly printed columns devoted to notices of who had died, who had gotten married, who had had a baby, who had asked for a divorce, who had been granted a divorce. As BMD records are acquired by higher levels of government, they are more likely to be indexed and/or digitized (or microfilmed, previously). A few places, like California, have created indexes of divorces for certain time periods and you can access these through for-pay services like, just like you can access social security death records, some marriage records, some birth and/or christening records, etc. You can interpolate a marriage date from census records, altho the question was asked less often than age, so if you don't get an entry for the person while married in that particular census, you're out of luck. But while census records asked for marital status and that could tell you that someone was divorced, I don't think any census ever asked a year of divorce.

In practice, at least in Washington State, if you are looking for a divorce, you're probably going to go to the County Superior Court where the plaintiff was living at the time. This court might be substantially more distant than the nearest Superior Court, but unlike marriage, you don't seem to get a choice. When you pay to file a document with the court, it's like an endowment; they seem to keep this stuff forever, altho files not "filed" may wind up in an archive somewhere else. I'm still working that angle in a couple places.

But divorce varied wildly in implementation over time. There's a Canadian database for searching for statutory divorces, which at least some sources say is the only way you could get a divorce in a certain time period -- but then later on the same web page, you find out the provincial courts handled them, too, raising a whole series of questions like, what does "divorce" mean.

What I cannot seem to find is the kind of genealogical novice resources that are fairly straightforward to find for BMD records. And to the extent I have found novice resources for finding divorces, they're not very good.

"Official divorce records: Official divorce records are those that can be accessed, usually for a fee ranging from $12 to $20, through each state's Department of Health and Vital Records." There's no reason anyone needs -- and a whole lot of laws stopping people from getting -- a certified copy. Sometimes you can get non-certified copies this way, but honestly, I've never even managed to get BMD records this way. I don't know why it's even listed as an option. Also, this is not useful for getting anything genealogically interesting, since a lot of places the divorce records are unavailable through this system anyway -- they're still kept at the county level and this is a state level process.

A little further down, it suggests this:

"State Superior Court: Check with your state's superior court, specifically the family law division or civil records department, to search for divorce records. County Superior Court: You can also research the divorce records kept in the superior court at the county level. Again, this information will typically be filed with the family law division or the civil records department. County Clerk's Office: If researching at the court level does not provide you with the appropriate divorce record, then look into the specific county clerk's office. Some states, such as Florida, organize all of their civil records in the Official Records Index, which is maintained by the county clerk. Authoritative Online Resources: Divorce records can also be easily researched and accessed through authoritative, online genealogy resources."

Again, how is this going to help? If you're doing genealogy, you're probably looking for something at least a few decades old, which means it won't be in the family law division and, odds on, outside a small number of (to be fair, populous) states, it won't be kept at the state level. I'm further flummoxed by the idea that the County Superior Court and the County Clerk's Office are treated as separate entities. In places where there's enough business for them to be separate, the divorce records you are looking for will accessed through some even more specialized entity (in my King County cases, I'm interacting with the "Correspondence Clerk" at the Superior Court).

Nowhere in this verbose discussion are newspapers mentioned at all, but most of the information I've gotten so far on divorces (outside of convenient indexes for a small number of states for a small number of years) has come from newspaper columns listing divorces asked/filed and divorces granted (or dissolution, depending on how that paper listed things). And these were _all_ newspapers online, either through the short-lived google newspaper scanning project, the New York State project (which may have been part of the google thing), the Seattle Times historical archive, or

I'm not sure why it's hard to find here's-how-to-get-started advice on divorce and genealogy. If I keep not finding it, I may write it. Because this needs to be out there, if only so amateur family historians can start building a base of information that can be mined in the future to better understand patterns of divorce.

ETA: I looked in _The Source: A Guidebook to American [sic] Genealogy_, Edited by Loretto Dennis Szucs & Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. I mention this in some detail for several reasons. First, that "American" means "what is or became the United States as current constituted". Good luck finding anything useful on Canada in this thing. It might be there, but trying to find anything Canada-specific is ... not easy. Mexico is not better. Second, every single time I've referred to this volume, it has disappointed me. To be fair, I go here _after_ internet research has failed me, so it isn't an easy bar to meet. Third, it does have a couple of pages on divorce.

And they are about as awful as the page. In addition to providing a very limited amount of information, some of which is a horrible mish-mash of current or recent practice and historical practice, it has a section on "Divorce Meccas" which manages to reproduce a bunch of ancient prejudice without apparent perspective. It's useful to point out that if you are absolutely sure your ancestor got divorced in a time period where That Was Not Possible, there are places you should look other than where they lived before or after. You do not need to act like the number of divorces processed in those "Meccas" was anything astonishing. Even information as simple as where-do-I-find-the-decree isn't handled well. "Most nineteenth-century and some earlier divorces will be found in county or circuit courts or their counterparts in the county where filing occurred." In most of the states I've checked so far, that practice continued _well_ into the 20th century.

The one good thing about The Source's divorce coverage is that it mentions newspapers as a source.

Link-Fu on Divorce Records

There will be editing. I'm not going to mark editing-to-add; it's just going to grow/change.


Highlights: "Massachusetts divorce records since 1922 are located at the county probate court in which the libellant filed."

Here's a trap for the unwary: "divorce records are generally filed in the county where the couple last lived as husband and wife - not necessarily where they last lived at the time of the divorce."

"A statewide index, from 1952 to the present is available at the Massachusetts Department of Health's Registry of Vital Records in Boston. This statewide index is known to contain many errors and omissions. It is only an index. The actual divorce files are, for the most part, still located at the county probate court. In addition to the statewide index at the DPH, each probate county court maintains a county wide index to divorce records since 1922.

Before 1922 and as far back as 1887, divorce cases were heard in the various county Superior Courts, such as Suffolk County Superior Court."

It goes on to list more indexes, and to work backwards in time and how divorces were handled and where the cases can be found.

That website is NOT a state website; it's a genealogical service and a member of the Public Record Retrieval Network, whose code of ethics can be found here:

This suggests one reason some of this stuff is hard to find explained in detail anywhere; people are making a living off of doing it as a service.

Here's what I used to get started in Washington State, from a government website.

Good freaking luck finding out anything about IOWA: It looks like the state has an index starting in 1906, but everything is _still_ kept at the District Court in the county where the divorce was granted.

New York has decrees before 1963 and certificates thereafter, and if this is to be believed, you can get it through the Department of Health:

But only if you are a party or have a court order. The genealogy page only lists BMDs, not divorces. BUT if you go here:

It's the usual drill: "contact the County Clerk in the County where the divorce action was heard"

Alas, when you look at a particular county, it looks like they mean it when they say you can't get a copy:

"Divorce files are sealed documents and are only available to the plaintiff, defendant or attorneys of record. Identification is required to view a divorce file. You may review a divorce file that you are not a party to by obtaining a notarized statement from one of the litigants or with a court order."

Oregon has a subscription system for accessing court information (fee for service):

I have no idea if that gets you everything they have that's allowed or just after a certain year.

They seem to be public records unless they aren't and Multnomah, the most populous county, gives a phone number to call to get a copy so it seems it must be possible. They aren't held at the State Level, unless OJIN has something; they're at the Circuit Court.

"Divorce decrees for Multnomah County date from the 1850's. Requests must be made in person or in writing to the Circuit Court's Dissolution of Marriage Records Unit. Records dating through 1983 are available on microfilm for research at the Circuit Court on a walk-in basis. Records dated 1984 and later must be ordered in advance and researched on site. The Multnomah County Circuit Court does not provide certified copies. Knowing the case number speeds the ordering process significantly."

The reverses the usual situation, in that older stuff is easier to get than newer things.


Typical situation: state level starting in May 1947, before that county level.

"The Idaho Bureau of Vital Records and Health Statistics maintains birth and death records filed from July 1911 to the present, and marriage and divorce records filed from May 1947 to the present. Some counties may have older birth, death, marriage, or divorce records in their files, but county files contain only records of vital events that occurred in that county. ... divorce certificates are legally confidential in Idaho for 50 years."

California: at the county level right down to now.

"Divorce Records. Certified copies of actual divorce decrees are only available from the Superior Court in the county where the divorce was filed. CDPH Vital Records can only issue a Certificate of Record - and only for divorces that occurred between 1962 and June 1984. A Certificate of Record includes the names of the parties to the divorce, the county where the divorce was filed, and the court case number. A Certificate of Record is not a certified copy of the divorce decree, and does not indicate whether the divorce was ever finalized in court. Our processing times can easily exceed 6 months."

They are apparently having trouble keeping up with requests for authorized certified birth records for ID purposes and everything else is backlogged as a result. I wonder what a "confidential marriage record" is?

"Authorized" in California records speak = you can only get it if you are a party or have special permission. Everyone else gets information. Certified applies to both. I'm pretty sure this is approximately how Washington works as well.


This is NOT clear at all.

"Birth records are public information 100 years after the date of the event; death, marriage, and divorce records, 50 years after the event. Vital Records are available to immediate family members only- mother, father, husband, wife, child, brother, sister and grandparents with valid ID. Birth records can be issued to the legal guardian with proof of custody papers. Aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, etc. cannot obtain a Vital Record."

I _think_ they mean you can get a copy of the divorce record 50 years after the fact. But I could be wrong.

Their application form requires you to know where and when the divorce happened, so that's clearly not the real process, and probably not anything more than a record that requires you to go somewhere else for the actual decree. Either way, it looks like they only have stuff from 1918 on.

Ah, here we go. Library of Virginia sez:

"Before the disestablishment of the Anglican church in 1786, there was no legal divorce. In some instances, a financial separation between husband and wife was recorded in a deed book. From 1786-1848, divorces were accomplished by legislative petition. After 1848, divorces were recorded in the county or circuit court order books."


"Availability of Records for Research

In many cases, the original record books and loose papers (suit papers) have remained in the locality where they were created and are kept in the office of the circuit court clerk. Microfilm copies of extant record books are available at the Library of Virginia from the date of the formation of the county or city to approximately 1865, along with a growing collection of post-Civil War holdings. A Guide to Virginia County and City Records On Microfilm may be found on the Library's Web site. Microfilm copies are also available through interlibrary loan."

Connecticut (this is _so_ familiar at this point):

How Do I Request A Divorce Decree or Dissolution of Civil Union Decree?

"The Vital Records Office does not receive copies of divorce decrees. To obtain a copy of a Divorce Decree or Dissolution of Civil Union Decree, contact the CT Superior Court where the divorce or dissolution was granted. Please contact the appropriate court for applicable fees and requirements: Directory of Connecticut Superior Courts."

If all you want is the names of the parties and a date, I suppose the vital records department of some state somewhere might be helpful. But if you want to actually learn anything from or about a divorce, you need the decree. And those are almost always at the county Superior or equivalent court where the divorce was granted.

Period. End. Once statutory divorce is over, this is the story, in toto.

An ethical question

There's some variability by jurisdiction regarding whether divorce decrees are public records or not. None of that variability has any impact on me. There are also some ethical issues associated with publishing genealogical material that involves living people. It is looking increasingly likely that I will be able to get one to three divorce decrees for a dead, fairly close ancestor, and one to two divorce decrees for another dead, almost as close ancestor. Assuming I do get copies of these decrees, and assuming I redact any mentions contained within the decrees of people who are still alive, what ethical concerns might remain about publishing these decrees publicly on an family tree and/or in a blog or elsewhere on the web?