Researching Divorces in Kentucky of Yesteryear

Family researchers occasionally find that divorce was a significant point in an individual’s history or the family genealogy. When researching a Kentucky divorce, the period, location, and circumstances must be considered to have a complete family picture. 

Kentucky divorce laws have varied from one period to another, and since 1972, when the Kentucky State Legislature revised the laws, divorce is no longer called divorce, but a Dissolution of Marriage.

Researchers Must Consider Kentucky Divorce Laws

For many years, there were two ways to get a divorce in Kentucky. 

One method was for both parties to ask and get a special act from the Kentucky legislature. The other method was for one party to sue under the 1809 statute, qualifying on the grounds listed in the statute. 

Divorces listed in the 1820 Journal of the House of Representatives. [Source: KY State Journals in the Public Domain, University of Kentucky Library]


When the third Kentucky constitution was written in 1849, the legislature was forbidden to grant divorces. After that, circuit courts granted divorces only. 

Kentucky Divorce Procedure through the Years

Before 1809, only the Kentucky General Assembly could grant divorces. From 1809 to 1849, the county circuit court ruled on divorce petitions. If the court approved, the Kentucky legislature would act on the petition. 

On January 31, 1809, the general assembly passed a law giving the circuit court’s authority to grant absolute divorces on certain grounds. 

To petition for divorce, the spouse filed the papers in the county where the couple lived. The offending party could not file for the divorce.

A man could divorce his wife in three situations:

  • if she voluntarily left his bed and board for three years
  • If she lived in adultery with one or more men
  • If she committed a felony

A woman had similar rights and had an additional circumstance. If the husband was endangering her life, she could petition for divorce. However, the courts had a high standard for this situation. Sadly, she usually had to endure a severe beating before the courts would agree he was endangering her life. 

The Court of Appeals soon held that circuit courts had no jurisdiction except by statute. 

Divorce suits were usually filed in the county in which the person suing for divorce lived. The circuit court clerk in the county in which the suit was decided keeps records of the suit and its result. The court filed these records under the name of the person suing. 

Finding Divorce Records for Early Kentuckians

When looking for an ancestor’s divorce records, you must consider the year, the county, and which laws applied.

The Kentucky Office of Vital Statistics (OVS) has marriage and divorce records from June 1958 to the present day. For a copy of the divorce record, complete the form and pay the fee. 

For records prior to June 1958, contact the county clerk that issued the decree. For divorces granted by the Kentucky legislature (1792-1849), check the Acts of Kentucky law books.

On our Member Portal, we have the early divorce records granted by the legislature (1792-1849), indexed by name, and published in the Bluegrass Roots Archive. Many of the Bluegrass Roots’ past issues contain county marriage and divorce records.


Editor’s Note

Kate Mulhearn submitted the following example of KY divorces after publication to show how well the Prewitt’s were getting along.

On Sept. 30, 1797, Michael Prewitt put the following ad in the Kentucky Gazette, Lexington, KY: Whereas, I am about to remove – to Shelby County, my wife Mary Prewitt refusing to go with me, I caution all persons crediting her on my account, as I will not pay any debts of her contracting. This was in the nature of a divorce in those times (See Filson Club Records; & Lexington Library, Newspaper Dept.). 

Source: “Michael Prewitt, Sr. & Elizabeth Simpkins Their Descendants 1720-2004” by Richard A. Prewitt. 2004.

About the Author

<h3><a href="" target="_self">Landon Willis</a></h3>

Landon Willis

Landon Wills (d. 1998) wrote this post for Bluegrass Roots in 1980. He was owner and editor of the McLean County News from 1946 until 1971. He was the publisher of Bluegrass Roots, an internationally circulated journal of the Kentucky Genealogical Society, from 1975 until his death in 1998.

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