Sunday, February 3, 2013
Skeletons in the Closet: Divorce
It can be difficult for many people in our modern world to understand why divorce might be such a touchy subject in one's family history, but for previous generations divorce was a much more significant event. Approaching the situation with gravity was even part of the legal procedure. A couple did not simply get divorced. Cause had to be shown, and then an interlocutory decree would be issued. The divorce would be finalized a year later, and then only after one of the parties followed through. That intervening year was to allow the couple to really, really, make sure they wanted to go through with the divorce.
Because of the social stigma attached to being divorced, women in particular did not want to admit to it. A lot of "widows" in the census were actually divorcées.
Some of the trepidation about divorce is a holdover from Catholicism, which still does not permit divorce. The most that Catholicism allows is legal separation, which, in all ways but the final dissolution of the marriage, is just like a divorce. Paperwork is drawn up, assets are divided, child custody is accounted for -- the same things you see in a divorce. Legally, however, the couple is still married. Most other religions allow divorce through some mechanism.
Apparently my family was very "forward thinking" regarding divorce. My grandmother was divorced in the early 1920's -- I wonder if it caused scandal in the family! My grandfather divorced for the first time in the mid-1950's, when it still was not a common occurrence. (Before that happened, he and my grandmother were together and my father was born. That, however, is a different kind of skeleton in the closet, a discussion for another day.) One time I sat down and counted and came up with twenty divorces through four generations of one branch of my family.
From a family history perspective, a divorce can provide incredibly helpful information. I have not yet found a divorce file that did not include the date and location of the marriage. If you have not found that through other research, obtaining the divorce paperwork can give you a lead. If the couple had children, their names and birthdates are usually included, particularly if the children are minors. There may be a full inventory of the couple's assets and property, which can give you an idea of their economic status. The file may also include addresses of the two parties if legal paperwork was served to them.
Divorce is a civil matter and the records are usually not found in the same department as birth, marriage, and death records. They are usually available at the county level in the U.S. Some divorce indices are linked from the German Roots site. You can also use your favorite search engine with the county name (and state, in case more than one county has that name) and the words divorce records. (Make sure you find a county site and not a for-profit third party.) For example, I searched for "okaloosa county divorce records" (not in quotation marks) and found the Okaloosa County Clerk of Court site (which I discovered has scanned images online!). If the county does not have images or a searchable index online, there will be information on how to request a search and how to order records.
Even though divorce is more commonplace in today's society, it still causes great emotional effects to all parties involved. If you are researching a divorce in your family and you talk to family members about it, keep people's feelings in mind and be diplomatic and gentle in your discussions.