Monday, February 04, 2008

Are Divorces Sealed in Upstate New York?

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!


Now if you have a question, if you agree, or if you want to chew me out, the “comments” button is just below this posting.



Unknown said...


In NYS, I believe that the law states that Divorces are sealed for 100 years. At that point, they are open and can be looked at. A couple years ago I looked at a Divorce in Onondaga County. I wanted a copy because it was a very interesting case, but due to the age of the document, they refused to copy it for me. So, what I concluded was you can look at them once 100 years has passed, transcribe whatever you want, but cannot walk out of the building with a copy of it due to the age of the paper.

Hope that helps

Anne Ruggeri

Anonymous said...

I am doing some "back door" research in an attempt to get over some hurdles I am encountering in my quests.
This person had the gall to die a few scant days before 1881, but I was told that Albany may have a record of this person's death due to the fact that she died on Dec 24th of 1880.
In your blog you do not mention this. I did send for the document in August, but they are several months behind in sending it requests, so I am still waiting.
I just thought you might want to mention that sometimes Albany may have death certificates before 1881. Doesn't hurt to ask.

unyg said...

That is great news.

Thanks Anne

unyg said...

In response to "Doesn't hurt to ask" You will get whole hearted agreement here.

A suggestion though in your specific case, it might be prudent to not get your hopes up too high.

There are some towns and cites that I know of that you "might" occasionally find an earlier record, but it was not the law.

Please let us know if you strike pay dirt!


Michelle Stone said...

Oddly enough (considering the tight courthouse policy) I have found that the newspapers loved to splash the "dirty details" of divorce/court proceedings around, during certain time periods (early 1900's). It doesn't hurt to try looking.

unyg said...

Good point on the newspapers Michelle. They are also quite a lot easier to search now with and newspaperarchive and other online newspaper databases. Thanks for the comment. Dick