Divorces are sealed in New York State, right?
Well the answer is yes, unfortunately for the family history researcher, but for obvious reasons that there is no need to discuss here we’ll just leave it at that.
There is a microform set of Divorce Indexes at the NYS Department of Health that cover the years 1881 to 1917, however I have not used them and am not able to advise much about this index. For the purpose of this Blog, it is a moot point anyway, other than to perhaps locate a date of a divorce. You are not going to get to see the information in the divorce, no way, no how.
However, did you know that you might be able to make an end run around this slight impediment? In every county in the state there are a set of index books that are titled “Index to Civil Cases,” or something very close to that title, and by using those indexes you will find references to all the “dirty little details” that led up to the divorce. The information here is primarily in reference to rather modern time cases. I am not able to instruct on very early times in New York State, primarily because I have never looked at any early divorce cases. If some reader has some input on this we would all like to know it. Use the “comments” button at the bottom.
In almost all divorce cases there were preliminary actions, such as separations, spousal abuse, abandonment proceedings, child support orders, and financial problems that might have caused some appearances in court, and all of those items and more will be referenced in these index books.
These are large volumes similar in size and heft to the typical Grantee / Grantor Indexes, and you might have to ask around in order to find them, but they are a treasure trove of information. In some of the counties that I have used these indexes in, they were filed in the County Clerk’s office. Sometimes they are on open shelves and sometimes you will have to request them. I have never found any filed in the county law library, but that is also a possibility. Snoop around until you find them. These are public access books.
Now these books are not just for marital problems, they index all types of law suits and court proceedings. Unfortunately the indexes are extremely lacking in details. All you get is a “Kramer vs: Kramer” type entry, with a date and a file number. If the neighbor is suing because he tripped over a dog bone and his name is McGillicudy, and the other party’s name is Buttinski, then it is going to be pretty easy to locate the reference you are seeking. However in marital matters it is almost always “same surname” vs: “same surname”. SMITH vs: SMITH and other very common names are indeed a difficult task.
After you have located a reference that you want to pursue, check with the clerk as to how to locate a transcript of the original case. Usually they are in published format in bound volumes of books in the county law library, but that might vary from county to county. Ask.
I have located very personal details on the subjects of interest, such as; dates of birth, place of birth, address, or addresses, occupation, names and ages, or dates of birth of minor children, military service, pensions receiving, Social Security Numbers, and incidents relative to the proceedings. For instance in infidelity cases, names, dates, witnesses, occurrences, the other man (the other woman,) and so on.
Kind of brings out the voyeur in you doesn’t it? To those of you who might think that this is too sensitive, that it is looking into matters that should be left alone. I say Nuts! This genealogy stuff is serious business! \grin/ – (You do know I’m joking of course, as I tend to do sometimes without letting people know.) I will leave the matter entirely in your hands as to whether or not you might want to use these legal methods to gain some clues for your research.
Go forth, do good!