Minnesota Genealogy: Finding Divorce Records

Learning that a family member may have been divorced 50, 75, or 150 years ago might yield a temporary shock to your system. It might also yield a plethora of family history details.

Divorce in the past is different from divorce today in some ways. Societal and family pressures may have caused a family or individual to hide the fact that a divorce took place. An abandoned woman may have listed herself as still married or as a widow and never filed for a legal divorce. Some couples just lived apart without benefit of a legal divorce. In Native American communities, tribal culture often considered divorce as simple as the couple separating and being involved in a new relationship. This practice veered toward official court proceedings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

The impetus for consulting divorce or marriage dissolution files varies. For most family historians, the reason is not salacious, but to gain additional family details and to help understand family relationships. I once had a
client who wanted divorce files for several living family members. My immediate reaction was an uncomfortable feeling. My reason was strengthened by the fact that I knew some of the family members. When working on locating current people in legal matters such as research involving current probate, land, tribal enrollment, or mineral rights, I would look at the files but chose not to do so for that client.

Reasons for a divorce
A cause for the divorce cause was usually listed in the proceedings before no-fault divorce became common. It might have been a situation where spousal abuse occurred, adultery, one spouse deserted the other, one may have been intemperate in drink or financial matters, or one or more of many other reasons for the split. The details may be painful to read, but often explain family stories and problems. In my own family, I was 26 when I found out that my father had been previously married.

In the 1970s, the reasons given for filing divorce underwent a dramatic change. According to a 2010 article in the Wall Street Journal, “California adopted the first no-fault divorce bill in 1970; by 1985, every other state in the nation—but one—had passed similar laws. In New York, the miserably married must still charge each other with cruel and inhuman treatment, adultery or abandonment—or wait one year after a mutually agreed legal separation—in order to divorce.”(1) Minnesota’s no-fault divorce became law in 1974.(2)

The information shared in the balance of this article pertains mainly to historical divorce records, with a focus on Minnesota. The Constitution of the State of Minnesota states “Divorces shall not be granted by the Legislature.”(3) Previous to the adoption of the constitution, the territorial legislature granted a handful of marriage dissolutions.(4)

Keep in mind that one party to a divorce may have moved beyond Minnesota and filed in that location after meeting any residency requirements.

Case Files
Since enactment of the state constitution, divorce in Minnesota is generally a District Court matter. For past years, this equates to a county level civil court proceeding. In recent years some rural county courts no longer operate separately, but may have a court system combined with one or more counties. However, the divorce should still be recorded in the county where it was filed. The historical case files for many counties have been transferred to the Minnesota State Archives and are housed at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. This is the home of the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS).

In some places, the name or “jurisdiction” of the court in which the divorce proceeding took place may have been different in early years of a county. For example, in Ramsey County in the time period of the 1860s and 1870s some divorces also occurred in the Court of Common Pleas.(5)

Pay attention to historical county boundary changes in Minnesota. One great source for this is the Newberry Library’s Atlas of Historical County Boundaries.(6)

The most interesting part is the case file that generally contains details including the names of the parties, names and birth dates of minor children, place and date of marriage, current place of residence for each party, affidavits from relatives, and decisions regarding custody and financial care of any children. In some cases, you will find paternity discussions. Those were the days before DNA testing. The content will vary depending upon the time period and the reason for the divorce. Other pertinent records, but with less details, may include a court docket, court minutes, judgment books, final decrees, and may vary depending on the county and state where the divorce occurred. Don’t stop researching if you only have a copy of a divorce decree. If you aren’t sure of what all these terms mean or what the records might contain, check Black’s Law Dictionary or a Works Progress Administration inventory of county records.(7)
Civil court case files are in numerical order. The case file number was assigned when the court action was initiated; thus the number is basically chronological. We might guess the approximate date range yet we may not be sure of the actual filing date due to many factors. Some cases were not settled quickly and that could give us a problematic sense of the date. A spouse may have delayed filing in hope that a reconciliation would occur. In the 19th century civil case files may be mixed with criminal case files and other civil matters. Don’t be surprised if not all civil case files have been retained. Generally it’s a storage space issue in either the county or the state archives.

Unfortunately, the indexes for some of these are not part of the county record collections at the state archives. If you are onsite at MHS, other county records such as judgment books, minute books, registers of actions, or court dockets may have an index and lead you to a case file number. Then it’s a matter of ordering the box which contains that case file number. MHS has extensive finding aids with such details. MHS also fills requests for persons out of the area, and it would be wise to first contact the probable county for the case file number. The MHS website has details on ordering records.

In civil court indexes whether at the courthouse or MHS, you should be able to find one of the spouses in the Plaintiff Index and the other in the Defendant Index. For the majority of women that means you must have their married name.

“Modern” Divorce records
The Minnesota Department of Health kept an index to Minnesota divorce records from 1970-1995. It is searchable online at Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org.

Beginning in 1980 it is Family Court that should be contacted. For example, in Ramsey County, Minnesota, the jurisdiction changed in 1980.(8) Records through 1979 are a Civil Court matter. Some Family Court files are at MHS, but there may be access restrictions. The MHS online catalog states such cases.

The bottom line is to look for Minnesota historical divorce records in county level court records. In other states, learn more about the court system and where the divorce file may be found. As with other court records and terminology, it varies from place to place. For more recent divorces, the location to check is usually Family Court.

Then there are the Minnesota relatives who went to Nevada or to Sioux Falls, South Dakota to get divorced (or just married). That’s fodder for a future article as is my father’s divorce story.

(1) “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” Wall Street Journal [online], 13 August 2010, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052748704901104575423341295531582. Viewed 1 November 2013.

(2)  Minnesota Legislative Reference Library. “Minnesota Women’s Legislative Timeline Significant Legislation Passed by the Minnesota Legislature Since Suffrage” (1919-2010)  http://www.leg.state.mn.us/lrl/womenstimeline/details.aspx?recid=20. Viewed 1 November 2013.

(3)  “The Constitution of the State of Minnesota Republican Version Signed August 29, 1857, Article 4th, Sec. 28.” Viewed 1 November 2013 at http://www.mnhs.org/library/constitution/pdf/republicanversion.pdf

(4)  An Act to Dissolve the Marriage Contract Between George Wells and Catherine Wells, His Wife. Session Laws of the Territory of Minnesota Passed by the Legislative Assembly at the Session Commencing Wednesday Jan. 1, 1851. (St. Paul: James H. Goodhue, 1851). Chapter 22, March 28, 1851. Viewed 1 November 2013 at http://books.google.com.

(5)  Minnesota Historical Society, Minnesota State Archives, Ramsey County Court of Common Pleas, “An Inventory of Its Civil Case Files,” page 5. http://www.mnhs.org/library/findaids/ram-ct05.pdf. Viewed 1 November 2013.

(6)  Newberry Library. Atlas of Historical County Boundaries. A Project of the William M. Scholl Center for American History and Culture at The Newberry Library in Chicago. Accessible at http://publications.newberry.org/ahcbp/. Address current as of 1 November 2013.

(7)  Bryan A. Garner, editor. Black’s Law Dictionary. 9th ed. St. Paul: Thomson West, 2009. Also available in various electronic formats. The early editions of Black’s are usually better for older  terminology. An example of a county records inventory is Minnesota Historical Records Survey. Inventory of the County Archives of Minnesota: No. 87 Yellow Medicine County (Granite Falls). St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Records Survey, 1941. Surveys were published for 44 of the 87 counties in Minnesota. They were also published for many counties in other states. The unpublished manuscript surveys for other Minnesota counties may be found in the extensive collection of Works Progress Administration files at MHS. These surveys are described here: http://www.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00695c.xml. MHS also has some published county archives surveys for other states. A list is here: http://www.mnhs.org/genealogy/family/genieguide/wpa_county02.htm. Viewed 1 November 2013.Many of these county level record inventories have been digitized and may be seen at http://www.hathitrust.org/.

(8)  Ramsey County Divorce Records. http://www.co.ramsey.mn.us/ph/vr/divorce_records.htm. Viewed 1 November 2013.

© 2013 – 2014, Paula Stuart-Warren. All rights reserved.

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4 comments on “Minnesota Genealogy: Finding Divorce Records

  1. Help, Paula! Tx so much for great info. Wondering whether to check w/Winona County courts, where my ancestor’s divorce took place 1885-1895, or MHS. I live on East Coast so cannot visit or retrieve and analyze files in person. Any suggestion for how to best proceed appreciated!

  2. I appreciate the details about the holdings of the MHS! I’m planning a visit there sometime in the next year and hope to learn whether or not my third great grandmother was, in fact, divorced. She was one who alternately claimed to be married or widowed, though family lore suggests otherwise.

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