Recording Divorce and Step Families in Your Genealogy Database

Complex families are not uncommon and have been around for many decades. Although many of us wish for a traditional, nuclear family, the fact is that cohabitation, divorce, death, and other circumstances happen to many families. No matter what your personal opinion may be about such things, they are a part of your family history. These events are worth recording to adequately tell your family’s story. Especially if there are children involved in these relationships, they deserve to know the facts about the circumstances in which they were born and raised.

In this series of blog posts, I will discuss strategies for recording complex families in your genealogy database, whether you are using an online tree on sites like Ancestry or FamilySearch, or a family tree software such as RootsMagic or Family Tree Maker. The basic concepts for different database programs should be the same. I will show you step by step how to record these in a RootsMagic database, and give you tips for how to do the same process in other programs.

So let’s get started. First we will talk about how to record a divorce. Most kinds of genealogy software will let you enter a divorce date and place as an “event” or “fact” attached to an individual or a couple. Some also have a “marriage status” in which you can enter that a couple was divorced after a certain date.

Here is the dialogue in RootsMagic for adding a divorce fact. You can find it by double clicking on an individual and clicking “Add a fact.”

Divorce Event Rootsmagic

Notice that there is a fact called “Divorce” and another called “Divorce filed.” Divorces can be complicated, and oftentimes multiple dates need to be recorded to tell the whole story. It would be smart to enter when the divorce was filed and when the divorce was finalized as two separate facts. If you scroll down the list, you will see another fact called “Separation.” This is useful for recording when a couple stopped living together. Recording such events are useful for understanding the timeline of a family’s life. Many divorces may not be finalized for a year or more after a separation occurs. Sometimes a separation happens but a divorce is never officially done. You need to know your family’s history.

The divorce event or events are attached to both spouses involved. This is what it looks like on an individual person’s record in RootsMagic:

Divorce fact on individual

The procedure is fairly similar in other genealogy programs. If you are generally ok with using computers, you should be able to figure it out. If not, you will need to look up a tutorial. There are so many different genealogy programs out there that I can’t do a tutorial for all of them in one blog post, sorry. Here is one video tutorial for Legacy Family Tree. It is different because in addition to the divorce event, it has a “marriage status” feature, which is also included in other programs such as Heredis. I think the “marriage status” feature is somewhat redundant in this instance, but I can see how it might be useful for recording circumstances such as an unmarried couple with children.

On Ancestry.com, follow the same general procedure: go to the individual person’s page, click on “facts” then “add” in the “facts” column. Select the divorce event from the list and fill in the information. In FamilySearch it is not so straightforward. I hope they improve their dialogue for this eventually as it is kind of hidden. You have to scroll down on the individual page to where you can see their family. On the left are their spouses and children and on the right are their parents and siblings. Find the little pencil icon on the right side of the box for the couple you want to add a divorce to:

Edit Couple FamilySearch

You will then see a page with the spouses’ names and all the events and sources that are specifically attached to their relationship as a couple. You can click on “add an event” to add a divorce event. You can also add a note to explain things more in depth. The divorce event will only be visible on this couple page, which I think is annoying. Hopefully FamilySearch will eventually improve this feature. An easier way to add divorce information is to import it to FamilySearch through another program, such as RootsMagic, Legacy, or Ancestral Quest.

One more thing that needs to be done when recording divorced families is defining the relationships between the children and their parents. A child may be biologically related to one father or mother, but raised by another. You can indicate this by adding them to the family formed when a couple is married. The child will now have two sets of parents. You can then define how the child is related to each parent:

Relationship to parents

In this example, Bobby Smith is the biological child of John Smith and Jane Doe, so I select birth for his relationship to each of them. Bobby’s parents were divorced and his mother, Jane Doe, remarried to Walter Longbottom. So this is what I had to do in the database:

  1. Add Walter Longbottom as a spouse to Jane Doe
  2. Add Bobby Smith to the new family of Walter Longbottom and Jane Doe
  3. Define Bobby Smith’s relationship to Walter Longbottom as a “Step” relationship

Again, you should be able to do this in most other programs. Some of them have different relationship terms than others. See what your program has and pick the closest one.

Walter Longbottom had a child from a previous marriage, too. Here is what the family looks like all together in Rootsmagic:stepchildren

I hope this has been helpful, at least for RootsMagic and FamilySearch users. Let me know if you have any questions.

More articles in this series:

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