To do the search, you'll need to visit the Cook County Circuit Court Archives on the eleventh floor of the Daley Center, 50 W. Washington, Room 1113. They're open weekdays from 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 scissors at home.
Once you're at the Archives, you'll need to consult a microfilm index 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 husband and wife, you'll just need to search one or the other. If you only know one name, you'll have to search both.
The earlier indexes are computer-generated alphabetical printouts and they're fairly 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, you'll probably want to use 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. 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. When you use these books, be very careful to choose the correct section to search. If in doubt, search multiple sections.
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, the first step is to consult a Domestic Relations Division Index. 1964-1980 is on microfiche. 1981 forward is electronic.
Once you have a case number from an index, the divorce file can be ordered in from the off-site warehouse. It usually takes about a week (2-10 days) for the files to become available and then you can return to view them and/or make copies.
Researchers who visit in person can make their own photocopies. The costs are $2.00 for the first page, $.50 for the next 19, and $.25 each thereafter. The copy machine is in good working order and makes copies on letter, legal, or 11 x 17 paper. It's also possible to use a cell phone camera (no digital cameras allowed but the ScannerPro app works great) or a small portable flatbed scanner but check with the Archives first to make sure your scanner meets their strict guidelines.
Each case generates a unique set of paper work, but the alphabetical list below will give you an idea of some of the documents you might find 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 once 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
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.
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