Genealogy Research,  How To,  North Carolina Genealogy

How to Find Your Ancestors’ Divorce Records

Searching for an ancestor’s divorce records can trip up even the most seasoned genealogy researcher.

Finding our ancestors’ marriage records is one thing and often one of the first things a researcher searches for.

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

Not all of our ancestors lived happily ever after. Learn where and how to search for your ancestor's divorce records.  #genealogy #ancestors #familyhistory

What about when they divorced?

Divorce records were not (and still are not) found alongside the birth, marriage and death vital records.  We’ll explore  where to find an ancestor’s divorce records below.

Why Did Our Ancestors Divorce?

While not as common as today, our ancestors could divorce for a variety of reasons. Abuse, abandonment and lack of support are just some of the reasons. 

Finding Clues Your Ancestors Divorced

As you research your ancestor, you may start to pick up clues their union was not a happy one. Clues to search for a potential divorce record can be found in a number of records.

  • Beginning with the 1880 census, look for a “D” in the marital status column.
  • Indication on a marriage record of a previous marriage for the bride or groom.
  • Children listed in the census records with a different last name than the mother
  • Deeds or land records executed by a femme sole or a married woman on her own.  [Note: A single woman were considered a  femme sole.  She could own land, sue, be sued and petition the court.]

Not all of our ancestors lived happily ever after. Learn where and how to search for your ancestor's divorce records. #genealogy #ancestors #familyhistory

 

 

Where To 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.

Be prepared. The search for  an ancestor’s divorce records can be time consuming and even tedious.  As with 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. I cannot stress this enough! Depending on where your ancestor lived, determines how a divorce could be sought.  Divorce records typically were recorded in county courts or state legislative records. For example, in early 19th century North Carolina, divorces were granted by the General Assembly.  In colonial New England, divorce was handled at the civil court level. Still different, the Spanish colonies with large Catholic influences, couples received a dissolution of marriage.

Again, it is crucial to understand how divorce was handled at the time and location your ancestors lived.  

This is an example of a divorce petition to the Legislature of North Carolina made by Lucy Hendricks in 1824.

Not all of our ancestors lived happily ever after. Learn where and how to search for your ancestor's divorce records. #genealogy #ancestors #familyhistory
Divorce Petition of Lucy Hendricks (Source: NC Digital Collections)

 

Not all of our ancestors lived happily ever after. Learn where and how to search for your ancestor's divorce records. #genealogy #ancestors #familyhistory
“To the members of the Legislature of the State of North Carolina in General Assembly met ….”

Lucy Hendricks petitioned the North Carolina General Assembly for a divorce from her husband John Hendricks of Warren County.  Lucy married John Hendricks 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 his debts. 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. Charlotte sought a divorce or if not a  divorce, protection against her husband’s debtors so she could support her children. 

Not all of our ancestors lived happily ever after. Learn where and how to search for your ancestor's divorce records. #genealogy #ancestors #familyhistory
Source: NC Digital Collections

In other words, Charlotte Street trying to make sure she was not held responsible for her husband’s debts.

Tips For Finding Your Ancestor’s Divorce Records in State Legislative Records & County Court Records.

Searching for an ancestor’s divorce records in legislative or county court records can be a bit tedious sometimes. Try these tips for improve your research chances.

  • 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 period 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, just start reading.  Narrow the date down based on your research  of the married couple’s lives and read the records for that time period. Tip: Creating a timeline for each involved ancestor can help narrow down the time period you need to search. (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 will still 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. Oh, and you also improve your ability to read the old handwriting!

“Read All About It” in the Newspaper!

Not all of our ancestors lived happily ever after. Learn where and how to search for your ancestor's divorce records. #genealogy #ancestors #familyhistory

As genealogy researchers we would be remiss if we failed to check local newspapers for evidence of an ancestor’s divorce.   

Mention of an ancestor’s impending divorce might be mentioned in the “legal announcements” of the newspapers. Also, check the “court proceedings” or court actions section for a mention of the divorce. Potentially, a longer article  might have been written if circumstances for the couple were particularly contentious. 

Here is an example of a divorce announcement in the “City Bulletins” section of The Washington Post on 10 February 1906.

Washington Post (1906) Divorce Announcement
The Washington Post, 10 Feb 1906 (Source: Ancestry.com)

Here is an example of how a newspaper report of a divorce case can lead you to the where to find the court records of the divorce.

Not all of our ancestors lived happily ever after. Learn where and how to search for your ancestor's divorce records.
The Washington Post, 3 May 1911 (Source: Ancestry.com)

James Walker is filing a appeal  in the couple’s divorce suit. The appeal will be held in state’s supreme court. Researchers of this couple will want to search the state’s supreme court records for details on the couple’s divorce case. As a researcher, do not be intimidated to research the higher court records. Often the higher court records contain notes if not entire copies of the county or lower court records. This can be especially important if the couple is from a burned county.

5 Tips To Find Your Ancestor’s Divorce Records

1.Make your research plan.

2 .Learn as much  as possible about your ancestors in traditional records.

3. Narrow down a possible date range for a divorce based on the couple’s other records.

4. Find out where the divorce 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.]

5. Start researching!

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15 Comments

  • ROXANE COPELAND

    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

    roxanecopeland59@yahoo.com

      • Deena

        I’m wondering if Bridge and groom’s had to present divorce papers to remarry in 1861. I’m searching for information on My gg grandmother Zelpha Thompson and gg grandfather Noah Taylor they married in 1851 or 1852 in Pulaski county Kentucky had a child then she married someone else had a child and married again John J Bloomer in 1861. I cannot find the first 2 marriages. If they had to prove they were divorced how would they do it.

        • LisaL

          That’s a good question. They obviously had to be free to marry. Are you sure the first two husbands did not pass away? I would go after the estate records for those two en first. Since young children were involved, guardianship papers can be very helpful. Divorce records would be found in the court records – usually. Check with an archivist at the state archives to see where KY divorces for that time period were filed.

  • 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!

    • 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!

    • Deena

      Thank you Lisa. It didnt occur to me to check for estate and or guardianship papers since the children remained with the mother. Thank you for this tip.

      Deena

  • 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.

  • Janet Mills

    How can I find my great-grandparents divorce record when I am not sure of the year or the State? I have a record of their marriage in Muscogee County, Georgia on March 26, 1893. (Tiny Hearn married Henry D Burns) Tiny Burns married Robert McKissick on November 6, 1904 also in Muscogee County, Georgia. Tiny and her daughter (Ocie Mae Burns) were living with her family in Lee County, Alabama in the 1900 census. She is shown as a widow, but family lore is that Henry D Burns either ran off or they divorced after my grandmother was born. My grandmother would never speak of her father. I now nothing of my great grandfather other than his name.

    • LisaL

      It is very possible if he ran off that a formal divorce ever occurred. It could be quite easy at that time for a man to walk away from a family and start a life somewhere else. In these instances, wives took on the “widow” status
      to avoid unpleasant questions. In that case, there would be no records. If a divorce did occur, check the known counties where they resided. If possible, talk with a state archivist (AL and GA) and see how divorce records were recorded for that time period.

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