New York Divorce Records for Genealogy Research
Do you think your New York ancestors or relatives obtained a divorce in New York? It is possible, but for over 300 years obtaining a New York divorce was not an easy matter.
Whether you know with certainty that there's a divorce in your family tree, or just suspect one occurred due to evidence you have found elsewhere, there are several things every researcher should know about divorce records in New York State.
First of all, divorce records are not formally considered vital records - though they are obviously related to the act of marriage, when genealogists refer to vital records they typically only include birth, marriage, and death records.
This is particularly important to note because while finding an official birth, marriage, or death certificate is an important step in the research process, there will be (in most cases) no official "divorce certificate" to be found.
Divorce records are still worth seeking and can contain very deep information - but it is important to know that divorce records are court records in New York State. Different courts were charged with handling divorce proceedings at different times, so it's important to learn about divorce during the time period you're interested in.
In general, getting a divorce in New York was difficult - there were few official divorces until 1787, and even after that, adultery remained (with some exceptions) the only reason for divorce up until 1967.
This means many couples seeking a divorce turned to other states to obtain one. See the last section of this article for details on the fascinating consequences to this aspect of New York matrimonial law.
How to use this article
This article provides a brief overview of divorce throughout New York history, along with advice on finding divorce records.
If you're having trouble finding divorce records, it's especially important to read the last section - many New Yorkers had to go out of state or even out of the country to get their divorce, so the records you're seeking for divorced New Yorkers could be located in another state entirely.
Divorce in Colonial New York
In colonial times there was only a brief period between 1655 and 1675 when divorces were granted in New Netherland and New York.
The best study of divorce in Colonial New York - which is free and available to read on New York Heritage - is an article titled Divorce in Colonial New York by Matteo Spalletta from The New-York Historical Society Quarterly, 39 (1955): 422-440.
There were actually only three official cases of divorce documented during this time period in New Netherland. One in 1655, one in 1657, and one in 1664 - all three are detailed in Spalletta's article.
For the next century that the English ruled the Province of New York, divorce was essentially non-existent, or at least extremely rare. Spalletta has collected several pieces of evidence from colonial records that highlight cases in which a divorce, separation, or annulment was granted - they are detailed in his article.
Although divorces were few and far between, researchers investigating divorce during this time period should read Divorce in Colonial New York in full for a crucial understanding of the historical context.
Divorce in New York: 1787 - 1847
In 1787 the New York State Legislature enacted a law which permitted divorce on the grounds of adultery in addition to legal separations and annulments
Divorces were granted at first by the Chancery Court, a state court - records of the Chancery Court for this time period can be found at the New York State Archives in Albany. There is one notable exception - Chancery Court records for downstate circuits, covering New York City and the several counties close to it, are separate.
A useful article on these downstate records is published in the April 1998 issue of The Record. Charles Farrell's "Index to Matrimonial Actions 1787 - 1840, New York County Clerk's Office" includes an index which includes the plaintiff, defendant, date, and type of proceeding (divorce or separation). The introduction also contains a sample abstract that shows the depth of information that can be obtained from these records.
These records were recently moved from the New York County Clerk's Office to the New York State Archives. This summary list of major record sets transferred to NYSA may be helpful, though researchers investigating these records should reach out to NYSA directly for guidance and assistance.
Divorce in New York: 1847 - Present
In 1847 the power was transferred to Supreme Court in each county - each County Clerk has maintained an index to "matrimonial actions" (divorces, legal separations, annulments).
All of these county indexes are open to the public, but researchers should note that the divorce files themselves are sealed for 100 years. If the divorce was granted more than 100 years ago, you can examine the file, which is usually in the custody of the County Clerk. In some counties other departments maintain these records, so looking into the details of the county of interest is highly necessary.
Even without access to the full file, the index can contain valuable information about the event.
The New York Family History Research Guide and Gazetteer addresses more recent divorces in the chapter on vital records:
Divorce certificates have been issued in New York State since 1963; certificates for divorces in New York State and New York City are filed with the New York State Department of Health in Albany. Without a court order, the parties to the divorce are the only persons who may obtain certificate copies.
Important Facts to Know About New York Divorce
With few exceptions, adultery was the only grounds under which divorces were granted in New York until 1967.
The divorce decree during this era would usually specify that the innocent party was free to remarry while the guilty party (the adulterer) was not. The guilty party usually did remarry anyway but left New York State to do so.
Because a divorce on any grounds was so tinged with scandal, it was not unusual for couples to separate without the benefit of the law. They would then pretend to be single or widowed, and often remarry, usually in another state.
New Yorkers unwilling or unable to charge their spouses with adultery also sometimes obtained divorces elsewhere - this is similar to the concept of a Gretna Green marriage location. In the 20th century (up to 1967) this often meant traveling to the divorce capital of Reno, Nevada, or hiring a lawyer to obtain a divorce from another country, particularly Mexico, followed by remarriage outside of New York State.
From early in the 1700s many New Yorkers, especially from New York City, Long Island, and the Hudson Valley, went to neighboring Connecticut where divorces were granted for desertion, fraudulent contract, or seven years’ absence, in addition to adultery.
Our New York Knowledge Base has a fantastic set of abstracts on this topic: New Yorkers in Some Connecticut Divorces lists surnames of New Yorkers obtaining divorces in Hartford, Litchfield, New London, Tolland, and Windham counties (the coverage varies by county, ranging from 1719 to 1922). Beginning in 1796, one party had to be a resident of Connecticut for three years before a divorce would be granted.
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