Skeletons in the Closet

Most families have at least one "skeleton in the closet":  a shameful secret that they try to keep hidden and don't talk about.  Some of the things that are considered shameful have changed over time, and some differ by community.  This series of occasional posts discusses some of these taboo topics, what you might find, and being respectful when speaking to family members about them.

A Criminal in the Family
Illegitimate Births

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  1. Maybe you can help me.
    When i was 19 ( 1984)i discovered that i had another brother and sister from my Fathers previous marriage( i knew nothing about).About 1 year later i discovered that i was illegitimate as my Father had never divorce his first wife ( when he married my Mother ). My Mother and Father remarried. How can this be? His first wife was still alive and they never got divorced.

    1. If your question is how could your parents marry, the answer is that if your father truly never did divorce his first wife, any subsequent marriage ceremony was not valid and your father was, at minimum technically, a bigamist. It's possible he might not have known he was not truly divorced. It used to be that the first divorce decree was the interlocutory, which did not actually dissolve the marriage. Someone had to return to court some time later — often a year — to officially request that the marriage be dissolved. If that final step did not occur, the marriage still existed. The thing is, not everyone went back to court to do that.

      So here's a possible scenario (but keep in mind this is just a possibility, and I don't know the specific circumstances of your family): Let's say your father's first wife filed for divorce and your father was notified. The first wife appeared in court, and the judge issued an interlocutory decree. Your father was informed of this. The first wife did not return to court a year later to request that the marriage be dissolved. Your father, however, assumed that she had and believed that he was divorced without checking to be sure. He then married your mother.

      Alternatively, you could have a situation such as with my grandparents. My grandfather knew he wasn't divorced, yet he lived with my grandfther and fathered my dad. I don't know whether he told my grandmother he was divorced; if he did, she obviously didn't insist on seeing documents to prove it. When my grandfather left the relationship to be with someone else, that woman insisted on seeing divorce paperwork before she would continue to see him. That's when he divorced his first wife.

      Here's another example: I researched a family in Canada. The husband came to the United States and less than a year after immigration married a woman here. At the time this happened, it took an act of Parliament to grant a divorce in Canada, and he didn't have one, so he was still married. Again, there's no way to know what he told the second wife, but it was a bigamous marriage, because his first wife was still alive and they were not divorced. In that case, he almost certainly knew he was not divorced and entered the second marriage anyway, whereas your father might not have known.

      Does that help you understand what might have happened in your family?


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