Genealogy and the Law

A Layman's Guide to Legalese

When you’re knee-dip in genealogy resources, you might start to feel just a little overwhelmed by the abundance of legal terms you don’t understand. Because much of the genealogy hunt involves sifting through court and county records, marriage licenses, certificates of birth and death and other official documentation, it’s important you’re familiar with some of the terms you will encounter.

Even if you aren’t familiar with them, you should know how to find the definitions you need as quickly and efficiently as possible. That way, instead of being bogged down by legal terms, you can get on with the important business of starting your search, finding your ancestors, reconnecting with your past and learning who you are.

In this layman’s guide, we’ll give you a crash course in genealogy terms, why they matter, some of the most common words and phrases you’ll encounter, and how to continue researching these terms on your own.

Definition of Genealogy

First of all, you should know the actual definition of genealogy. While people toss this world around loosely to indicate the research of a family, it actually has a very specific meaning. According to Farlex, it is “The summary history or table of a house or family, showing how the persons there named are connected together.” In other words, a genealogy is a family tree.

Specifically, this means tracing your family tree backward through time to find out who your ancestors are and where they come from. The world genealogy, according to Home Advisor’s A Guide to Genealogy, may also be used to refer to either “the search for family history” or “the descendants of a specific ancestor. For example, a genealogist compiles a list of all of the descendants of a great-great-grandfather. This list is the genealogy of the great-great-grandfather.”

How you yourself use the term matters less than understanding the various ways it is used, so that when you encounter it you can put the meaning in context. Now let’s discuss for a moment why legal terms even matter in genealogical research.

Why Do Legal Terms Matter in Genealogy?

Just as with any type of language, words matter because they convey meaning. If you don’t understand French, for instance, and someone jabbers an entire paragraph at you, how much are you really gleaning from the conversation? Pretty much nothing, right? Even including hand gestures and facial expressions – the basic context – you can only understand so much.

This is the case with the types of complicated documents you might come across during the complex archival research that is often required of a genealogy hunt. Knowing these terms is very helpful, because then you don’t have to stop and look them up or try to puzzle them out from hints in the surrounding text. Instead, you can simply apply the meaning and move on, which may lead you to other, bigger discoveries.

Plus, oftentimes the legal definition of a term is different than the colloquial definition, or the one you’re used to. In other words, many legal terms have different definitions than they would in the “real world.” For instance, while we associate the word infant with a very young baby, the legal definition of the word is actually anyone who is under the age of majority. In the United States, that number is currently 18, while in other places it may be 16 or 21. It all depends on the rules in a certain country, and in a certain time.

Says, “An ‘infant’ cannot file a lawsuit without a ‘guardian ad litem’ (one-purpose guardian) acting for him/her, in most states cannot marry without parental permission, and cannot enter into a contract that is enforceable during his/her minority.” You can see that this is a very different definition, and might be confusing if you were to read about, say, an infant getting permission to marry from guardians. That’s why it’s important to understand the meaning of certain words as they relate to your search.

Of course, there are hundreds of genealogical terms, and you can’t be expected to know them all if you’re not a professor or years into your search. There are a few basics, however, that may come in very handy. Let’s now take a look at the most common legal terms, abbreviations and basic words you might encounter during your search.

Legal Terms Most Commonly Encountered During Genealogy Research

Below we will cover some of the most common terms you might encounter, typically while doing research in courthouses, archives, libraries or other primary sources.

The following lists of the most common legal terms and abbreviations come from PBS, and account for the words and phrases you are must likely to come into contact with during your search.

Decedent: A person who has died, not to be confused with descendant, which means a person who is in an ancestor’s family line.

Dower: The share of the husband’s real estate to which the widow is entitled upon his death, not to be confused with dowry, which is the sum of material goods and assets a woman brings to a marriage.

Estate: The total property that is held by an individual and available after their death, typically divided among several beneficiaries.

Grantee: The recipient of any kind of property, either through purchase, gift or request from the original owner.

Grantor: The individual who sells or gives their property to another person through one of the above channels.

Ibid: This word means “found in the same place,” and usually refers to a document someone has already quoted. It is typically found in the footnotes of documents.

Infant: A person who is below the age of majority, or is not yet an adult.

Intestate: The state of someone who has died without leaving a will. It comes from the word “testament.”

Issue: Offspring or children.

Nee: This word identifies a woman’s maiden name, and means “originally called.”

Posthumous: After death.

Proximo: Used in dates to mean next and usually reffering to the following month, though it can refer to other upcoming dates as well.

Relict: While this term is confusingly close to “relic,” it actually means the widow of a deceased individual.

Sic: This term shows that an incorrect fact has been copied faithfully, even if it is wrong. For instance, a misspelling or grammatical inaccuracy might be followed by the word sic, and is often in italics or [brackets].

Naturally, this is a far cry from all legal terms you will encounter throughout the course of your search. If you get stuck, you can look to various other resources for definitions. For instance, if you’re looking for colonial legal terms, you might check out a source such as Colonial Legal Terminology from Bob’s Genealogy Filing Cabinet. Here is a short list of the most common military court terms, and this comprehensive glossary from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security includes all the terms you might need to research immigrants to the United States.

Generally speaking, if you are looking for a specific list of legal terms, you can usually just Google [subject] + legal terms and you’ll get a pretty good set. Your subject could be anything, including

  • A country
  • A relationship
  • A type of work

… and so on. If that’s not working for you, add “genealogy” to the end of your search, which will usually target it more effectively and bring up hits on the most common words and phrases you need to conduct a search.

Abbreviations Most Commonly Encountered During Genealogy Research

Below are some of the most common abbreviations, also courtesy of PBS. Because abbreviations can be so confusing, and don’t contain any inherent meaning, it’s crucial to know not only some of the most common of these, but also where you can look for further help figuring out abbreviations.

b. or bn. - Date of birth.

b. or bur. - Date of burial. Because this is exactly the same as birth, you will have to look at context and surrounding dates to tell the difference between the two.

C. - abbreviation of latin word “circa” meaning an approximate date or time. This is usually used to indicate that a person was born or died around a certain year, or that another important event occurred (e.g. marriage, building something, incorporating a town, and so on)

d. - Date of death.

dsp - Abbreviation of a latin term meaning “died without issue,” which in turn means died without having any children

et. al. - Abbreviation of latin term meaning others, indicating the presence of other names not listed on the document. Most commonly used in referencing a document where multiple authors, grantees, etc. were involved but are not specifically named

JP - Justice of the Peace, or a judge

m., m1, m2 - Marriage date. The numbers indicate first marriage, second marriage, etc.

n.d. - No date known.

ob. - Abbreviation for the latin term “obit,” meaning deceased.

Tutor - Guardian of underage person or minor. This should not be confused with the more common terms used today, which is closer to teacher than guardian.

Unm. - Unmarried.

For a complete list of genealogical abbreviations, try some of these comprehensive sources:

Note that while such resources can help you with English abbreviations, you will have to look elsewhere for abbreviations in other languages. If your family hails from a non-English-speaking part of the world, you are likely to encounter documents in other languages, which means not only will you have to translate the words themselves, you will have to know what the abbreviations means. Here is a fairly good list of abbreviations in other languages, though it is not comprehensive. If you get stuck, the best idea is to ask the archivist, court historian or other authority figure at the place in which you are conducting your research.

Other Basic Genealogy Search Terms

There are a variety of other terms you might find useful knowing in the course of your genealogy research. Not all of these are specifically legal terms, but again, the definition used in the context of older documents may not be the same one we use today. Or you may just not be quite familiar with the meaning of a certain word or phrase, so it can be helpful to learn those terms to streamline your search.

  • Military Terms: While the most important terms in your search are not likely to be military, there are times when having a command of military jargon will be very helpful. If, for instance, you are trying to find out more about a relative who was in the military, you’ll want a good command of these words so you can use them to do further research. It’s hard to craft a good search term in a database or on the Internet if you don’t understand what’s being said in the first place, so grasping the most common military terms could prove very helpful.
  • Census Terms: The same is true of the census. The census is the survey of all known citizens in a certain country at a certain time. This can produce very interesting information about birth rates, death rates, marriage rates, ethnicity, jobs, home ownership and more. It can also provide detailed information about a certain place and time, so knowing census terms is crucial. Keep in mind that while the above link is for U.S. census terms, most countries have kept census records for decades, and some for centuries, so no matter where your ancestors lived you are likely to benefit from this knowledge.
  • Colonial Terms: Many ancestors lived in colonies, not only in the United States but around the world. This list of colonial English words may be helpful to you, especially when reading non-legal primary documents such as journals, diaries and letters.

Again, as with legal terms, you can usually find a fairly comprehensive list of terms if you search a specific time + language + place + subject. You might, for instance, search “late 1900s Irish potato farming terms” and come up with some good encyclopedic resources that can help you understand what happened at that time in history, which can in turn help you understand your own past.

Legal Terms in Other Languages

Legal terms in other languages are also important, because unless your ancestors are from a country that has spoken English for hundreds of years, chances are some of the research you will do will be in another language. Good resources can be found online simply by Googling [language] + legal terms. For instance:

While not every glossary is specifically geared toward genealogy (most aren’t), they can still be very helpful to you when you get stuck.

Understanding Family Relationships

Many family terms are basic and you won’t have a hard time understanding them. Mother, father, brother, sister, grandparent, et cetera … these are all terms everyone knows. However, terms like “second cousin” or “cousin once removed” are not quite so clear, and you may need some definitions of how each is related to you.

It can also be very helpful to understand how each person on a family tree is connected to the others on that tree. This graphic shows you how each type of relative is related to a common ancestor, and while it may take a little time to figure out, a chart like this will be very helpful in accurately filling out your family tree. This is especially helpful because knowing your relationship to a common ancestor and a relative’s relationship to that same ancestor can help you figure out your relationship to them. When you want to determine how someone with a DNA match, for instance, is related to you, this is powerful stuff.

Comprehensive Resources for Legal Terms 

While the above lists include some of the terms you are most likely to come across, there are hundreds if not thousands of words you might need to know if you are to conduct a full genealogical inquest into your own past. In that case, you will most likely benefit from some of the full sources below.

When using these sites, reference the term you’re looking for carefully first. Many terms (and especially abbreviations) mimic one another, and adding in other languages can make the situation particularly difficult. Then head to the site, navigate to the word (usually linked by letter) and find the definition you’re looking for. If you’re particularly organized, you might consider taking note of that definition in a book or document.

Without further ado, here are your exhaustive sources for terms: