Divorce Records: What These Public Records Show About Trends In Love And Marriage In America


Disclaimer: The below is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.

Although the statistic may have been arguably accurate in the 1980s and 90s, it is no longer true that half of most marriages will end in divorce. In other words, it is currently inaccurate to say that the divorce rate is 50%. Now, that rate is somewhere between 42% and 45% thanks to a shift in cultural and social norms and attitudes. In part this may be due to the fact that not only are fewer people getting divorced, fewer people are also getting married in the first place. However, a review of information from divorces around the country may indicate that some factors are more likely to lead to a dissolution of a marriage than others: when both members of the couple are 24 years old or younger, never attended any college, or are in their second or third marriages, they tend to have a higher chance and likelihood of getting divorced than others.

What are divorce records?

Divorce records are the documents that record the dissolution of a marriage or partnership. These may include all the papers that were filed during the divorce, including sworn statements from the spouses, financial documents, and more. These materials typically compose what is known as the “case file,” which has every piece of information concerning a divorce.

Additionally, there are two specific types of documents recording that a divorce occurred: a divorce decree and a divorce certificate, which are issued by two different departments and which serve two different purposes.

  • Divorce certificate: A state's vital statistics bureau (usually part of the state's health department) is the body that issues divorce certificates. This document has the names of the spouses and the date and location of the divorce.
  • Divorce decree: A divorce decree is available through the court that granted the divorce, and may contain slightly more information that the divorce certificate. It has all the information included in the aforementioned document, but also summarizes the variety and form or type of divorce proceedings and the terms of the separation. In addition to the court case number, it may contain information about spousal support, child custody, and property division, as applicable. It is also signed by a judge or magistrate.

All these of these types of documents (a divorce decree, certificate, and documents or records) compose what is generally referred to as “divorce records.” It is important to understand the distinction between talking about divorce records as a whole and specifically the case documents pertaining to a divorce.

Are all divorce records public?

Divorce records, as a whole, are generally considered to be vital records, and therefore deemed to be in the same category as birth records, death records, and marriage records, making them public records and, in theory, fully accessible to everyone. However, depending on the jurisdiction, there may be special stipulations before one can gain access to divorce records.

If the divorce records you are looking for are not yours…

Generally, divorce certificates are available for inspection by anyone, although the law stating who may see these documents varies by state. In some states, only the two people who were divorced and their attorneys may obtain access to a divorce certificate, whether or not for a fee.

If you are able to access a divorce certificate that is not your own, you may have a to pay a fee.

Divorce decrees and other documents pertaining to that particular divorce that are collectively part of the case file are generally not available to the public.

However, if a divorce is more than a certain number of years old (in many jurisdictions, this period may be a minimum of 50 years old), the record of it may be transferred to an archives department, and therefore may be accessible by anyone at this point (or it may be less easy to access digitally).

If the divorce records you are looking for are your own…

If you are looking for your own divorce records, you may already possess your divorce certificate, which you may require in certain circumstances, such as in the event of a remarriage or a formal name change. If you are looking to replace a lost certificate, you may be able to obtain a copy for a fee and upon proof of your identity. Depending on the circumstances surrounding the divorce, you, your former spouse, and your attorneys may be the only ones able to get such a copy of the divorce decree.

As for the case file of documents and divorce records, these items may often be available only to one of the former spouses or their legal representation upon request.

Governmental or agency representatives, law enforcement professionals, and others may also be able to view a divorce record as a result of a court order.

Sealed divorce records

If divorce records were sealed by a judge, you may not be able to view the information they provide. A judge may decide to seal a divorce record to protect a child's identity or the identity of a victim of domestic abuse, or to protect sensitive information like Social Security Numbers and bank account numbers, or at the request of one or both of the parties. If you are the one obtaining a divorce and would like your record sealed, you must make the formal request.

Information included in divorce records

Divorce records (including the decree, certificate, and all other case documents) contain pertinent information about the couple's lives together. The information in the records may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • The ex-spouses' full names
  • Marriage location
  • Divorce location.
  • Divorce date.
  • Reason for divorce (e.g., irreconcilable differences, abandonment, et al., bear in mind, however that the purported reason may simply have been that label that was most convenient for the parties to secure at the time and such titular designation may not fully reflect actual circumstances).
  • Number of children, if any.
  • Applicable court judgments, such as division of property, alimony or spousal support and ancillary amounts, custody and child support agreements.

How to find divorce records

Before you start searching for the record of a divorce, you may want to try and obtain and have ready some key information on hand so as to reduce the risk of errors in your findings: know the full names of the ex-spouses, the location of their divorce (state or county), and their birthdays. This latter information may be important in order to identify the correct individuals and certificates, as there may often be people with the same or similar names who have gotten divorced in the same jurisdiction, on the same day.

If also is beneficial (and certainly doesn't hurt) to know some other basic information, such as the date and location of the marriage and whether or not the couple had children.

Secondly, you may want to narrow down where you should be looking for the record of a divorce. Depending on where the couple got divorced, you may have to check with the county, state, or district, or directly contact the State Vital Records department or the Department of Health Office. For copies of a divorce certificate, you may have to pay a fee. You can also use a private service or a third-party service to obtain this information for you. Additionally, the information you are looking for may or may not be digitally searchable, depending on the jurisdiction.

Tips on finding divorce records

Even with extensive information, you may not be able to find the divorce records you are looking for. Here are a few tips to reinvigorate your search:

  • Gather as much information about the former couple — even the smallest detail can lead to a breakthrough in your search.
  • Secure the former wife's maiden name.
  • If you can't find the record through various state departments or archives, try going directly to churches, synagogues, or other religious institutions where the former couple may have been married.
  • If you know if any of the former couple's family members, finding their marriage records may shed some light.
  • Visiting libraries and archives in the location where the couple got both married and divorced may be helpful.

Divorced? Make sure you have a certificate

If you are divorced, having a divorce certificate may be crucial. This is the proof that you are divorced and may may be required to provide it should you want to:

  • Get remarried
  • Legally change your name
  • Change your name on official documents such as your driver's license, ID, vehicle title and registration, new SSN card.
  • Participate in other legal transactions
  • In many states, applying for a duplicate driver's license or identification card requires that you provide proof of divorce.

If you are unable to find your divorce certificate, you can request a replacement or additional copy from the courthouse located in the county where you obtained your divorce. This may require filling out an application, proving your identity, and paying a fee.

How divorce records may be helpful

Divorce records may be helpful in a number of ways, and you may need them to uncover information about an individual.

  • Divorce records may help establish whether or not someone is lying about their romantic status, and in this way, you may protect yourself from fraud.
  • They may be helpful in a people search, and using this information may help you locate or find additional information about a long lost loved one, friend, or acquaintance.
  • You may be able to piece together an ancestor's history using divorce records.
  • You may be able to use divorce records in connection with an inheritance dispute.

Facts and trends in divorce in America

  • Someone gets divorced every 13 seconds in America.
  • Odds of getting divorce increase if only one partner is a smoker, the couple has financial issues, if one partner has been married before, or if the couple hasn't attended any college (among other factors).
  • The top reasons for divorce include cheating, money problems, abuse, and loss of affection.
  • Most divorced people wait an average 4 years before getting remarried.
  • 28% of children of divorced couples are not as close to their fathers after a divorce.
  • The average cost of a divorce is between $15,000 and $20,000 — but the price varies considerably between the states.

Proof that a divorce happened may be discovered by anyone with the right resources and after payment of a fee — but the details surrounding that separation may not necessarily be available to the public. Though “divorce records” are public, the documents in the case file may still remain private. Talk to representatives of your state's administration to better understand exact regulations concerning general access, what type of access you may have, fee details, and who within the appropriate department you may need to speak with if you wish to view divorce records.

What will you find out?