Divorce records in the possession of the Archives vary considerably by date depending on the jurisdiction. In order to locate a divorce file it is necessary to know:
- the county that granted the divorce
- case number
- names of the parties
- the approximate date
If the case number is unknown the Archives has some indexes available. For other counties you may contact the appropriate circuit court to obtain the case number or request the Archives to do the research (jurisdiction, date, and case number) for a fee. The Archives cannot check all counties for an unknown date. For divorces granted before January 1, 1992, there is no single statewide index available that will provide a date and/or the court that granted the divorce. In these cases the Archives will use its existing resources to check the county where the divorce is believed to have occurred and counties adjoining it within a five year period (two years before and after the date believed correct for the divorce) for one search fee. For divorces granted after January 1, 1992 to the present, the Division of Vital Records, Reistertown Plaza, 6550 Reistertown Road, Baltimore, MD 21215 can verify the county where and the date when a divorce occurred, but cannot issue a certified copy of the decree. See Fee Schedule for ordering information.
Understanding Maryland Divorce Records
There were no divorces in Maryland during the colonial period, but there were instances where a wife was deserted or so mistreated that she was forced to leave home, and she applied to the Chancery Court for relief. In at least two cases, alimony was granted so long as she and her husband lived apart. However, a seven year separation apparently dissolved a marriage, judging by a 1706 case in which a man was charged with bigamy when he married and his former wife "was then alive in the Colony of Virginia and had not been beyond the seas seven years nor absent from him seven years together."
After the Revolutionary War, there was still the need to remedy intolerable marriages, but the power to grant relief was not conferred upon any of the courts of justice. Consequently, the General Assembly assumed the role, although there was no constitutional basis for legislative divorces. After a few unsuccessful petitions for relief, the Maryland legislature passed a special act in 1790 giving a divorce to a Talbot County man whose wife had been convicted of adultery and bearing a mulatto child. There were no criteria for grounds for divorce, but the legislature, acting with more speed than thoroughness, continued to grant divorces until prohibited from doing so by the Maryland Constitution of 1851.
There were two distinct types of divorce. Divorce a mensa et thoro, or divorce from bed and board, which was the basis for actions in the colonial period, provided for a separation, but did not affect the marriage itself. Divorce a vinculo matrimonli, or divorce from the bonds of matrimony, severed all ties, so that each party was free to remarry and at death neither was entitled to any part of the other's estate.
An Act to give the Chancellor and the county courts, as Courts of Equity, jurisdiction in cases of divorce was finally passed on March 1, 1842 (Acts of 1841, Ch. 262). The act provided for divorces a mensa et thoro and divorces a vinculo matrimonli, the two types already in existence. Grounds for divorces a mensa et thoro were: (1) cruelty of treatment; (2) excessively vicious conduct; and (3) abandonment and desertion. Grounds for divorces a vinculo matrimonli were: (1) impotence of either party at the time of marriage; (2) any cause by the laws of Maryland rendering a marriage null and void ab initio; (3) adultery; and (4) abandonment and absence from the State for five years. "Void ab initio" means "void at its inception," such as a marriage at gunpoint or cases of bigamy.
In 1845 the time of abandonment was reduced to three years and the requirement for leaving the state was eliminated. Proof of absence and irreconcilabiility was required. In 1847 a fifth ground for divorce a vinculo matrimonli was added "when the woman before marriage had been guilty of illicit carnal intercourse with another man, the same being unknown to the husband at the time of the marriage."