Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Tip: My ancestor may have been divorced. How can I find out?

Divorce was more common in the past than we might think. There may be a family story of a divorce, or it may have been noted in an official record, such as a “D” for marital status on the census, or noted on a death certificate.  Marriage records may indicate if the bride or groom had been previously married.  Newspapers might carry a notice of the divorce proceedings or note it in an obituary.

Depending on the law at the time of the divorce, the divorce may have been granted by a federal, state, county, or even town jurisdiction.  Thus, the records may be in any of those locations.  A good place to start would be “Where to Write for Vital Records” at

Just like Gretna Greens existed for quickie marriages, there were also “Divorce Mills” where one could go for a quickie divorce.  Thus, people may have gone to a neighboring county or state to expedite the process.

Many divorce records are online at sites like and  Early records may be abstracted in published court records.

Divorce records can be a wealth of information with clues to the wife’s maiden name, date and location of the marriage, names and birthdates of children, as well as the details of their relationship. 


Note: This was originally published in the "Tips from the Genealogy Committee" column in the Illinois State Genealogical Society Newsletter (September 2021).  While these tips were written for those researching Illinois ancestors, many of the principles can be applied to other locations.