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Divorce Records in the States

Like any of the vital records a family historian needs, such as birth-marriage and death records, one that can also be important are any divorce records. Now none of your ancestors may have ever been divorced, but unfortunately many individuals in a family did ‘hide the fact’ they were divorced at one time. Since it is a civil matter to be officially divorced from a spouse, there have been official governmental documents.

Never base your research concerning such matters as divorce on what is known by other family members or even what is written in the family Bible. In the 1800s – the Victorian era, divorce was problematic to legally obtain; the only acceptable reason for granting a divorce was the wife committing adultery. Another problem was getting a divorce was extremely expensive because some of the traditional family property might be turned over to the former wife or husband. Most churches also disapproved of any divorce, making the whole process of getting a divorce socially unacceptable.

Laws in individual states did change during the last half of the 19th century and into the 20th century. However, even when divorces were granted, a woman or man many times referred to themselves as a widow or widower. Even if a couple only separated, lived apart for years, never divorced, they would still state they were married or widowed. The label of being divorced was very difficult to bare.

So having many available records is difficult. As society moved more liberal during the 20th century and especially during the ‘roaring twenties’, during and after World War II, more couples would legally divorce, yet still not tell all the family members. Even if the person remarried, they wouldn’t even place on the marriage license they had been married before. In researching my family members that lived during the 1910s -1940s, I came across several relatives who had numerous divorces that no one in any of the family branches knew anything about.

So the possibly does exist, you just need to check and see if any divorce documents should be included in your family tree. Using the online site SearchSystem site for divorce records across the United states is a good starting point. A reminder, is to check neighboring states to where a family member lived. Many times a couple secured a divorce in another state. One interesting fact is that numerous people moved to California and Florida after World War II, and many of them then got a divorce. They felt less intimidated and away from family disapproval at divorcing by moving away.

This site has the state names, click on the interested state for its available divorce information. Each state is different in what information they release. Other only release records of certain time periods. Each state link does have its own set of directions, so read each carefully.

You can also contact a state’s department of vital records to secure a divorce record. Let them know you are doing it for genealogical purposes, that helps. Provide them with as much information (full names, dates, locations) as you can. Some states will send copies of divorce case, others just the final judgment. If you do get all documents, there can be a great deal learned, such as if there were any children during the marriage. That may be a fact also unknown in the family.

This is an important aspect for your family research that does need to be covered.

Photo: 1890s – couple living in North Florida.

Related Articles at

* Genealogy Standard of Proof

* Sending for Birth – Marriage – Divorce – Death – Records

* The History of Divorce

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