Sunday, February 3, 2013

Skeletons in the Closet: Divorce

This is the first of what will be an occasional series of posts. The idea behind this series is to discuss subjects which are often denied, covered up, or in some way obfuscated when relatives talk about family history.  When information is hidden, family history research becomes more difficult and can be derailed.  I'm starting with divorce because it's somewhat less volatile than some of the other topics.

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.


  1. My great-grandparents Abraham and Sarah divorced in 1931 in Brooklyn. I was able to get a copy of the records from the county. I know it's not something to joke about but it reads like a little Yiddish soap opera. I hear the witness' testimony in my head, telling of their trip down to Mermaid Avenue to catch Abraham with his lady friend. I learned of the divorce when I rec'd Abraham's 1937 death certificate. My father and his siblings were genuinely surprised to learn about it. The divorce took place before they were born and Abraham died when the 2 oldest were young so they had just assumed Sarah was a widow. I wish I had known about it when my grandparents were will living.

    1. Thanks for posting, Sharon. I think it's always sad when a marriage breaks up, even if it happened quite a while ago and I'm just finding out about it. But it helps you learn more about your family. Did their divorce records say when and where they were married?

    2. they married in NYC in 1905 (have the record). I can trace Sarah's Zejburski family back beyond that year 1800 line in Lomza Poland. Unfortunately Abraham is a Klein and I'm stuck on that branch...too common a surname (Bremen departure records shows last residence as Kovno Lithuania).
      To continue the family drama, Sarah and one of the witnesses to her divorce, Mr. Mendel, lived together many years later out of wedlock. Oy gut...such a scandal! This the family knew about and I was told that "Sarah and her sisters were whores" whenever I asked about Sarah. I don't know how Sarah's much younger sisters got wrapped up in this but the "whore" label apparently originated with my grandfather who was not happy with his mother's living arrangements. We have very little drama in the family tree so the story of Abraham and Sarah stands out.
      If you'd like to see the faces to go with the story, see my blog post at

    3. As you said, not something to joke about, but wow, what interesting stories to have about your family! And how wonderful that you were able to identify the photo. (I also have an unidentified baby on a bearskin rug, which is likely to remain that way.)

      Klein is indeed a common surname. Abraham didn't marry his lady friend by any chance, did he?

    4. Don't think so...Sarah was listed as his ex-wife on his death certificate. Abraham didn't fare well after the divorce. Between the Depression and the general decline in the kosher meat industry he lost his butcher shop. There is a note on his 1937 death certificate that he spent a year working for the WPA but they have no record of his employment.

    5. Ah, well, it was worth a shot. But it appears you've been looking for every possibility as it is. And even his parents' names from the 1905 marriage haven't helped narrow things down for the European research?

    6. I have his parents names and also someone I believe is his much older brother but still no luck. Wish his last residence was in Poland...I'd probably stand a better chance. Or if he had come to America a decade later when the ship manifests contained more data. My dad has an exact 37-marker Y-DNA match with a Lande family with Berdichev Ukraine roots. Both Klein and Lande mean "small". Unfortunately the unidentified common ancestor lived beyond the reach of our current research. I check the online databases for both countries once in a while to see if anything new has been posted that might help...haven't given up yet :-)

    7. I'll keep my fingers crossed for you!


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