Marriage and Divorce Records

The most common civil record of marriage is the marriage license, issued to the bride and groom by the appropriate civil authority upon application for their marriage. Following the wedding ceremony, the license was returned by the minister or officiant with the date and location of marriage to the county courthouse or town hall to be recorded in the register. At the same time, an official certificate of marriage may have been issued to the couple; this certificate may be found among your family's papers. In some states, particularly the southern states, you may also encounter a precursor to the marriage license known as a marriage bond. This financial guarantee was made prior to the marriage by the prospective bridegroom (or a relative or friend of the groom or bride) to affirm that there was no moral or legal reason that the couple could not be married. In cases where the bride or groom was under the minimum legal age for marriage, you'll sometimes find a record known as the consent affidavit, a letter or form completed and signed by the parent or guardian giving permission for the underage individual to be married.

“Where to Write for Vital Records” (www.cdc.gov/nchs/w2w.htm) from the National Center for Health Statistics is a good starting place to learn about the availability of marriage and divorce records (as well as birth and death records) for the state you're researching. Vitalrec.com (www.vitalrec.com) also includes contact information and information on record availability for U.S. counties and parishes.

Civil marriage records in the United States are primarily found in the office of the county or town clerk. In some cases, however, older marriage records may have been transferred to the state archive, historical society, or library, while recent marriage records may only be available from the state vital records office. Individual state laws determine which agency is responsible. To further complicate matters, the date from which each state began to keep marriage records varies. Many states and territories were documenting marriages by 1880, but some did not officially record marriages statewide until well after 1900. In most cases, marriages were recorded at the town or county level prior to state registration, so you'll want to check county records as well. There is no nationwide index to marriage or other vital records in the United States.

Online, marriage records are becoming easier to find. The best place to start is FamilySearch.org (see Chapter 4), which offers free access to indexes and/or images of marriage records from many states and counties across the United States, as well as from elsewhere around the world. Fee-based site Ancestry.com also offers many marriage indexes and image collections. Alternatively, check the site for your state and county of interest at USGenWeb.org for links to marriage records, or do a search online for marriage index in your state and county or state and town (as applicable) of interest.

In the absence of a marriage license or certificate, evidence of a marriage may be found in other documents. If your ancestor was married in a church or other house of worship, the marriage was likely recorded in the parish register or church book, along with preliminaries such as the posting of marriage banns. Newspapers can also be a good source for marriage information, including engagements, announcements, photos, and even descriptions of the ceremony and reception. Look for a special section of the newspaper dedicated to wedding announcements, or in the local news or society pages. A marriage date may also have been recorded in the family bible, on the back of a wedding photo, on a printed wedding or anniversary announcement, or in a letter, journal, or diary.

As with marriage records, divorce decrees relate to the family as a unit, and can often provide several details of genealogical value. These might include the wife's maiden name, the date and place of marriage, the dates of birth (or ages) of both parties to the divorce, the names and ages of any children, and the grounds for divorce. Divorce records are far less numerous than marriage records, however, and the manner in which divorces have been granted throughout history makes the records more difficult to locate as well.

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, divorce was rarely granted by the civil court. Instead, an act of the state legislature was necessary in most states, and it is among the records of these legislative acts where you'll find many early divorce proceedings. By the mid-1800s almost every state had enacted some type of divorce law, allowing for the “judicial” granting of a divorce. Most of these divorce decrees were issued in a court at the county level. The particular court varies by location and time period, so divorce decrees may be found among the records of the Superior Court, Circuit Court, Family Court, Chancery Court, District Court, or even the Office of the Prothonotary. Do a search online for divorce records in your state and county of interest to learn which court would have handled the process for the time period in which the divorce likely occurred. Most states also now require that a copy of the divorce certificate be filed with the state department that oversees vital records — a good alternative for divorces that have occurred since about the mid-twentieth century. References to a divorce may also be found in newspaper notices or among family papers.

Several websites make it their mission to link to as many online marriage indexes and databases as possible. GenWed (www.genwed.com) links to numerous free marriage records and indexes at both the state and county level. Follow the state links in the right-hand column. Online Birth and Marriage Records Indexes (www.germanroots.com/vitalrecords.html) and Cyndi's List — Marriages (www.cyndislist.com/marriage.htm) also link to larger online marriage record collections, organized by state.

Most marriage and divorce records online are available only in the form of indexes or abstracts, although increasingly websites are starting to add digital images as well. These indexes typically include the name of the bride, the name of the groom, and the date of the marriage or divorce. Unless the site also offers digital images of the actual marriage record, you should follow up by ordering or accessing the original record, as it will usually include additional details as well as offer additional verification of what you found online.

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