Separated But Not Divorced?

In some families, “there’s no such thing as a divorce” because “we simply don’t do that.” And while there may not be an actual divorce, there may be some records that indicate the couple essentially was divorced even if they were not technically divorced. The two main records one may encounter in the United States that pretty much indicate the couple separated are:

  • court cases for separate maintenance (or a similarly titled action)
  • property settlement in the land records

The first is a court action and the second one is not. A case for separate maintenance will spell out how one spouse is to support the other while they are living separately. This will potentially include alimony, child support, property allocation, etc. The couple is still legally married.

In some cases there may be some sort of property settlement that appears in the land records–if the couple owns real estate. In that case, one spouse may release certain property rights to the other (usually rights of dower and homestead), there may be a cash payment from one spouse to the other, and chattel property may be assigned and have ownership specifically spelled out. Again this is not a divorce.

This is one story that does not always get passed down from one generation to the next and why it is always important to completely search all records.

Sometimes one spouse will publish a notice in the nemydebtswspaper that they are responsible for their own debts. This suggests that there are financial, and perhaps other, issues within the marriage. The location of such a notice would suggest that other records be checked for either a divorce, property settlement, or separate maintenance case.

Maintaining separate residences in the same town is also suggestive of marital discord even if there is no other type of record generated. Census records, particularly if the husband is listed twice (once with the family and once by himself in a boarding house or an apartment) may suggest such a separation. They are not necessarily proof of it.

Just because there’s not a “divorce record” does not mean that your relative’s marital discord left no records. One just has to look.


5 thoughts on “Separated But Not Divorced?

  1. Those newspaper notices could suggest departure of the subject party. They do not necessarily suggest continued residence in the same vicinity.

  2. This is a very interesting post and has given me some ideas of what to look for in regards to my paternal grandparents. I have not been able to find any divorce records (nor marriage records, for that matter), but they lived apart. Though it is alleged that my papa had been married to another woman at some point after my granny, I have seen no records that suggest this. My granny never remarried. One of my cousins laughingly said that maybe they were never married. I have never been able to get an anniversary date. Granny didn’t want to discuss it (he was abusive) and nobody else could tell me.

    You’ve given me some ideas about what to look for in my searches. Thank you.

    • Thanks for your comments and good luck. Sometimes there are records left behind and sometimes there are not. The situation you describe may have potentially generated some court records.

  3. Alice Klobukowski says:

    Living in a boarding house would not necessarily indicate any kind of estrangement. My mother came from a family of contractors and carpenters in Texas. They frequently built churches, service stations, and other smaller buildings around Texas. The family lived in central Texas. They would stay in boarding houses during the week while they worked and went home on most weekends. If the census taker came by the boarding house, they were counted there instead of their real home.

    I also remember one census when my husband was staying with his mother because she was recovering from some surgery. I had to fill out the census with just my little son and me. My husband was counted half way across the country with his mother.

    • It may not be 100% proof, but it is suggestive of something particularly if the occupation does’t warrant it. If a husband is living in a boarding house in the same town, perhaps a few miles from his home (as I have seen just twice in the last few weeks while researching), that’s suggestive that there were probably issues in the relationship.

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