This page explains how to search for divorce records at the Cook County Circuit Court Archives. If you can't do the research in person, see the FAQ for how to obtain the records from a distance.
To search indexes, visit the Cook County Circuit Court Archives on the eleventh floor of the Daley Center, 50 W. Washington, Room 1113, open weekdays 8:30 am to 4:30 pm. You'll need to go through security to access the building so pack light and leave things like cameras, pocket knives, and banjos home.
Consult the microfilmed indexes to find a case numbers for divorces 1871-1963. There are two courts to search—Circuit Court and Superior Court—and both have plaintiff and defendant indexes. If you know the names of both parties, search either the plaintiff or the defendant indexes. If you know only one name, search both.
The earlier indexes are computer-generated alphabetical printouts and they're easy to use if you put them on the smaller front-screen reader. If you use the larger reader that projects to a flat white surface, ask to borrow a magnifying glass because the print will be small.
The later indexes are handwritten or typed ledgers and the entries are in chronological order grouped by the first few letters of the surnames. When you use these books, be very careful to choose the correct section to search. If in doubt, search multiple sections. Most are readable; some are not. In the 1930s the writing in some books is so faded that it's almost impossible to decipher what's there.
An index entry for a divorce includes the names of the husband and wife (no maiden names), the case number, and, for some years, the date the case was filed. Case numbers include a year, a letter, and a number. For example, 94-C-13647.
From 1964 forward, consult the Domestic Relations Division Index. The index for 1964-1980 is on microfiche. The index for 1981 forward is electronic.
Once you have a case number, fill out a request form to have the divorce file brought to the Archives from the off-site warehouse for no charge. It will arrive in about a week (call to confirm it's there before making the return trip) and will be available for viewing and/or copying for about 30 days.
After you view the file, you can make copies using your cell phone camera (no digital cameras are allowed in the building) or a portable flatbed scanner. See the FAQ for tips. You can also use the copier at the Archives to make paper copies for their standard rates: $2.00 for the first page, $.50 for the next 19 pages, and $25 per copy thereafter. The copy machine is in good working order and prints on letter, legal, or 11 x 17 paper.
Cook County divore research is a multi-step process: find a case number in an index at the Circuit Court Archives, order in the file, and return to view and/or make copies. Petitions often include a marriage date and place. Color copies can be made for free using a cell phone camera or a small portable scanner if you vist in person.
If you can't visit in person, you can request a search by mail and have paper copies sent to you or you can hire a local researcher.
There are some advantages to having someone make the trip for you. If you need multiple index years checked, it will likely save you money. And, if the researcher scans or photographs the documents, the color images can make it look like you're holding the actual records in your hand.
Yes. If you're planning to use your cell phone to take pictures, consider installing the ScannerPro app. It's well-suited to the task.
If storage space on your phone is limited, plan ahead so you can transfer images to your computer or the cloud while you work.
Some of the early tri-folded documents may be hard to flatten. Consider taking weights unless you want your fingers in the photos.
Small, portable flatbed scanners are allowed but access to power outlets is inconvenient and, quite frankly, it gets in the way of other patrons. A fully-charged laptop with a scanner that is powered by USB (think CanoScan LiDE 120) works great. Take a piece of heavy posterboard (doubling it works great) cut to the size of the scanner bed. It makes it easy to hold the tri-folded documents flat and in place while closing the cover.
Certified decrees through 1986 can be obtained from the Circuit Court Archives. If you visit in person (or send someone on your behalf), a clerk will search the index for a case number for no charge, and, in most cases, be able to provide a copy of the decree while you wait. If have have the case number, take it along. It saves a step. If you don't have the case number, narrow down the divorce year before you make the trip. The better the information you provide, the better the chance that the clerk will be able to find what you need.
If you can't visit in person (or have someone else do it for you), you can mail in a Record Search Request Form with the appropriate search fee. If a case number can be found, the Archives will let you know the total cost for the certified copy of the decree (depends on how many pages it is) and they will mail it out once they received your payment check. Because this approach relies on back and forth through the mail, it can take a few weeks to get a decree this way.
Decrees from 1987 to the present can be obtained from the Domestic Relations Division.
If, after a thorough search, neither you nor the Circuit Court Archives staff can locate a Chicago divorce in one of the indexes, it's likely the couple didn't pursue a legal divorce or filed the case outside of Cook County. If one of the spouses moved to another county, in or out of state, check there.
In the 1870s, and perhaps just before and and after that decade, a number of divorces for Chicago residents were filed in Utah Territory, thanks, at least in part, to the work of attorney Alphonso Goodrich who promised to procure legal decrees in a discreet way.1
Divorce cases for Salt Lake during this time period are available online at FamilySearch in the Utah, State Archives Records, 1848-2001 records collection. If you think these records might be relevant to your search, send a quick email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll check an index that we have in progress.
1See, for example, Illinois Supreme Court, Norman L. Freeman, reporter, Reports of Cases at Law and in Chancery Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of Illinois, Volume 79 (Springfield, IL: E.B. Meyers & Co., 1877), 148-154; digital images, Google Books (https://books.google.com : accessed 25 April 2017).
For the early years, no, but search the various newspapers available online. Sometimes divorce cases were covered.
The Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, mentions divorces and includes the case numbers necessary to order a file from the warehouse through the Circuit Court Archives, but to date, only volumes 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, covering 1873-1882, appear to be online.
For the later years, the Circuit Court offers an Electronic Full Case Docket Search online.
Divorce petitions generally include a marriage date and place and summarize the reasons for seeking a divorce. Maiden names are often omitted but relatives' testimony and children's names and ages might appear. Last-known addresses might be mentioned and, in rare cases, evidence such as personal letters might be included.
Each case generates a unique set of paper work, but the alphabetical list below will give you an idea of some of the documents that might be included in a divorce file.
Affidavit of Non-Residence
Minimimal information; addresss is unknown; last-known address of defendant may be given
Amended Complaint for Divorce
Significant information; may be overlap with original complaint
Answer of Defendant
Significant information; defendant's response to the complaint
Certificate of Evidence
Significant information; transcriptions of depositions; may include plaintiff and witness testimony (acquaintances or relatives); format is usually questions and answers
Certificate of Mailing Notice
Minimal information; may include defendant's last-known address
Certificate of Publication
Minimal information; includes text of newspaper announcement directing defendant to file an answer or appear
Complaint for Divorce
Significant information; may include date and place of the marriage; maiden name of wife; names of childreSi born to the couple; reasons for divorce
Decree for Divorce
Significant information; summarizes the outcome of the divorce proceedings including information about alimony, child support, and child custody
Minimal information related to court proceedings; in one case this document gave permission to amend a complaint
Order of Default
Defendant didn't file an answer; "complaint ... taken as confessed against ... the defendant"
Petition of Defendant
Significant information regarding the circumstances of the divorce
Minimal information related to court proceedings
Minimal information; might provide the defendant's address
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