How to Find Your Ancestors' Divorce Records
Genealogy Research,  How To,  North Carolina Genealogy

How to Find Your Ancestors’ Divorce Records


I find reading through 19th century court records to be fascinating.  Much more exciting that reality TV.  And really,  the current generations aren’t doing anything new.

Scandals existed then, too.

Abuse. Debt. Abandonment. Lack of support. Divorce. (Yes, a woman was looked down upon for seeking a divorce except in extreme cases.)

Our ancestors just did not broadcast their news through social media!

Finding our ancestors marriage records is one thing. These is one of the first thing a researcher searches for.

But….what about when our ancestors did not live happily ever after?

What about when they divorced?

Several of you reported to me searching potential divorce records for your ancestors was one of your biggest frustrations.

Let’s take a look at how we can make it easier.

Where do You Find an Ancestor’s Divorce Record?

Divorce at one time was considered extreme and even scandalous, but a husband or wife could seek a divorce.

The search for divorce records is time consuming and even tedious.  Like most genealogy searches, the possibility of success keeps us searching.


As with any type of record or event in your ancestor’s life, know the laws and the day’s custom before you start researching. In the 19th century, married women held no legal status separate from her husband. She was a femme covert.  Wives could be named in suits brought against her husband and any land she owned prior to marriage became her husband’s.

Note: A single woman were considered a  femme sole.  She could own land, sue, be sued and petition the court.

Marriage records are found in the state’s vital records office.  After a certain period of time, these records are usually moved to the vital records collection in a state’s archives.

Divorce records in the 19th century were not part of the vital records.

Divorce records were recorded in county courts or state legislative records.

Lucy Hendricks Divorce Plea
Source: NC Digital Collections

This is an example of a divorce petition to the Legislature of North Carolina made by Lucy Hendricks .

Example of Divorce petition 1

Lucy Hendricks petitioned the North Carolina General Assembly for divorce from her husband John Hendrick of Warren County.  Lucy married John Hendrick at “the tender age of thirteen”.  John proved to be an abusive husband even threatening to drown Lucy in a mill pond. Lucy left  John and returned home to her father.  She pursued a legal divorce to be able to marry a respectable man. From the record, it is unclear if Lucy received her divorce decree.

In 1818 Charlotte Street of Orange County, NC petitioned the North Carolina General Assembly for a divorce from her husband.  Her husband had abandoned her due to debts.  Charlotte sought a divorce or if no divorce, protection against his debtors so she could support her children.

Charlotte STreet Petition for Divorce 1
Source: NC Digital Collections

Tips for finding divorce records in state legislative records and county court records.

  • Talk with a state archivist to learn which collections (state level or county level) the divorce records for your specific ancestor in a specific time are located.
  • Determine if finding aides such as indices or abstracts exist.
  • If so, use these aides to find the original record….Success!
  • If no finding aide exist, start reading.  Narrow the date down based on your research  of the married couple’s lives and read the records for that time period. (This is the time consuming part I talked about earlier!)

If you do not find a record of divorce for your ancestor in the records you search, you benefit from learning about that record source.  You will gain an better understanding of the communities and state politics that affected your ancestors.  This is important knowledge to tuck into your genealogy toolbox to possibly use at a later time.

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Now it’s YOUR turn.  Make your research plan.

Learn as much about your ancestors in traditional records.

Narrow down a possible date range for a divorce.

Find out where those records are and figure out how to access them.  [If you are not able to research the needed  records in person, here are some tips for researching when you can’t travel to the site.]

Pin this for future reference!

How to Find Your Ancestors' Divorce Records


(Psst….If you need help shopping this holiday season, here’s a handy-dandy Genealogy Gift Guide.)




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    Hi there Lisa: I am trying to find my grandparents divorce in Alabama. My Grandmother was Mary Myrtle Ray ( she married my Grandfather Carl Manning Morris) . My grandma Mary was born on 11-10-1918 in Alabama and she died on 5-17-1992 in Dothan, Alabama. My grandpa Carl was born on 11-10-1910 in Evergreen, Alabama and died on 5-17-1992 in Dothan, Alabama. They were both married on 9-5-1936. Could you please find out when they divorced each other? I would greatly appreciate your assistance Lisa.
    It is always so hard to find the divorce compared to the wedding with sincere thanks, Roxane Copeland

  • Cheryl L Bohn

    Hello Lisa, I wonder how you might handle a situation like this: my great grandparents divorced in Philadelphia in 1900. Philadelphia keeps the records sealed permanently. I can’t even be sure of my great grandmother’s maiden name because the newspaper only reported her as “Mrs. Married Name.” I also live in Florida so distance is an issue. Have you had successful experience with sealed court records?
    I enjoyed your article and will be seeking temporary guardianship court records for the time frame in 1900 when the children were in an orphanage during the divorce process.
    Thank you for considering my request and all the best for the coming (genealogy) New Year!
    Cheryl L Bohn recently posted…Using Flickr to Identify Your AncestorsMy Profile

    • LisaL

      Cheryl, Unfortunately, sealed records are just inaccessible. You will need to research around them. Since you know when the children (and I’m assuming their approximate birth years), you can estimate a marriage date. Search marriage records for a groom marrying a female with the correct first name. If you haven’t, check the local newspapers. Depending on the reasons for divorce, you might pick up clues there. For instance, I researched a case once where the wife divorced the husband for neglect and abuse. I discovered him in the newspaper police reports for that time for other crimes, too and found further clues to the family. It’s a long shot, but you may be able to pick up some clues. Keep us updated on your search!

  • Mary Packenham Bornhoeft

    Lisa, I appreciate all the information you are willing to share. I have learned many things from you.

    I have a wall that I can not break through. I have been researching my father’s family. My gggrandfather Charles Pakenham, was born in 1789 and pasted away in 1872, in Wisconsin. I am unable to find where he was born, or who is parents are. I suspect he was born in England and later moved to Northern Ireland. I found that two of the children were born in Ireland and the other children were born in Canada.

    I believe his spouse was Mary Kennedy, born in 1795. I can’t find any wedding information either. How do I break through this wall……I have been at it for so long, I feel I may never get any further.

    Thank you,
    Mary Packenham Bornhoeft

    • LisaL

      This is a tough one! I’m not an Irish or Canadian researcher, but researching in both of the countries will need to be done. If his children were being born in both Ireland check the parish records. Also, check the English parish records for Charles since you suspect he was born there. FindMyPast has a great blog if you need help getting started in English and Irish research.

    • LisaL

      If you know the state and county where the divorce took place, contact the county offices and see where divorce records for that time period were recorded. Then you can purse them. They will likely be in the county court records, but check first.

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