7

One of my mother's cousins, once removed, is either a divorcee or a bigamist; hard to tell since his first wife referred to herself as "widowed" in a census survey, and yet, afterwards, her "late" husband returned to town for a family reunion. They had lived in Dutchess County, New York.

Has New York centralized divorce records, or must I go to the county courts to get that information?

7

Some states (like Florida and California) provide an index to divorce records to the public, but New York State apparently is not one of them. I'll provide some links to the information I have found so far, but this is one of the scenarios where it might be best to consult a professional with experience in that area.

What Records Exist?

The Family Search Research Wiki's article on New York Vital Records: Divorce Records gives an overview of the history of divorce in New York State. The article says:

Since 1846, the supreme court has recorded divorce proceedings. Each county has a supreme court, roughly equivalent to a district court in other states. Some counties may share supreme court justices. Many people before 1966 found it easier to obtain a divorce out of state. Access to supreme court divorce records less than 100 years old is prohibited without judicial permission. You must obtain a court order to see a file. The actual trial records are sealed.

Vital records outside of New York City are held by the New York State Department of Health. Their article Birth, Death, Marriage & Divorce Records gives general information about what vital records are available, and gives links to other pages, including one on Divorce Certificates and Genealogy Resources.

The Divorce Certificates page says:

What types of divorce records are available?

There are two (2) types of divorce records.

First, there is the divorce decree. This is the document prepared by the court, setting forth the terms and conditions of the divorce. It is signed by the judge and filed with the County Clerk of the County where the decree was issued. This is usually the County where the plaintiff resided. For information about obtaining a copy of a divorce decree, contact the appropriate County Clerk. Please note that if the divorce was granted before January 1, 1963, the divorce decree is the only type of document available.

Second, there is a divorce certificate filed with the New York State Department of Health for divorces granted on or after January 1, 1963. The divorce certificate contains basic information about the spouses, and the date and place the marriage ended. For information about obtaining a divorce certificate copy from the New York State Department of Health, please continue.

Who is eligible to obtain a divorce certificate copy?

  • Either Spouse
  • Other persons with a New York State Court Order

The Genealogy Records page has a link to the New York State Archives. A search for divorce records found this question in the Research Assistance/FAQs:

Where do I get a copy of a divorce decree?

Divorce records dating since July 1, 1847, are filed in the office of the county clerk where the divorce proceeding occurred. (All records of matrimonial actions, including divorce, separation, and annulment, are available only to the parties or their attorneys until one hundred years after the date of the final court decree.) Divorce records dating prior to July 1, 1847, are filed either at the New York State Archives (upstate counties) or the New York County Clerk's Office, 31 Chambers Street, New York, NY 10007; phone (212) 374-4376 (downstate counties).

The New York Department of Health's page on making Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests also notes that vital records are not available through FOIL requests.

What if I go to the local county?

If you go directly to Duchess County, the website has the following page for people who want access to court records for Genealogy Purposes:

Due to limited staffing, this office cannot do genealogy searches as a courtesy. If we do the work on a business basis, we must charge the fees set by law, which often makes the cost prohibitive.

This office is aware of the following people in Dutchess County who specialize in Genealogy. They also have access to records of offices other than those available to us. Their names and addresses are listed below.

(Underneath this opening text are links to the local historical and genealogical societies, and contact information for some experts in the area.)

But I really want to know! Now what?

The most luck I've had so far is with newspaper research. Many small-town newspapers printed names of couples whose cases were on the court calendar, or whose divorces had become final. It's also worthwhile to consider that people sometimes filed for divorce in other localities than the place where they lived, if the rules about getting divorces were more lax than in their own state.

Once you have a notice from a newspaper article that says a case was on the calendar, you could try to find the court calendars themselves. Look for references to court minutes or dockets. However, the dockets or calendars may not have enough information for you to tell that these are the same people -- they are likely to have only a date and the names of the parties involved.

For more information about researching courthouse records --

In a recent webinar, "That First Trip to the Courthouse", Judy G. Russell, who writes the blog The Legal Genealogist, recommended two books by Christine Rose, Courthouse Indexes Illustrated and Courthouse Research for Family Historians: Your Guide to Genealogical Treasures. They are available from the author's website, or check WorldCat to see if they are in a library near you.

Links to New York State Historical Newspapers:

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