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The Compleat Genealogical Database: Legal Events

Legal events are a part of everyone's life. In the vast majority of cases, they are not related to lawbreaking. Regardless, they create genealogical information you should include in your database.


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Resource: GenWeekly
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The most common reason people go to a courthouse is to procure and file a marriage license. The process involves filing for a license, getting married, and then returning the license to the courthouse in the county where the marriage occurred. That's easy if the marriage took place in the courthouse. It's not so easy when the couple realizes they filed for the marriage license in the wrong county. My uncle went to the courthouse on his lunch hour to pick up a marriage license, not realizing the rules. My aunt and the man who eventually became my uncle, solved the problem in a unique way: they drove across the county line where a justice of the peace met them and married them on the highway. The rest of the wedding went on as planned in the county of my aunt's choice.

The result is that one could look in vain until the end of time for my aunt and uncle's marriage certificate in the county where they held their "wedding" without ever finding it. They were not legally married at their wedding. That took place across the county line and their marriage license was filed in Macon County.

It is not completely uncommon to find unreturned wedding licenses. When the wedding doesn't happen in that short window of just a few days, the marriage never happened from a legal standpoint. Don't stop when you find when a license was applied for; make sure it was returned! The bride or the groom just may have gotten cold feet and cancelled the wedding.

Courthouse Property Deeds

The second most common reason for going to the courthouse is to file a property deed. But there are unusual circumstances, as well. Any change to a property will be accompanied by a legal document. If a property was annexed to an adjacent county, there will be a legal document. That document squarely places your ancestors at that location. It also provides genealogical clues. When a property was legally annexed to a different county, your ancestors were enumerated, from that point on, in a different county, without ever changing residence. That is a really important thing to be aware of and an important note to include in your database, along with the date when the change occurred.

Anytime a property undergoes a change, such as rezoning, there will be court records. While you may not be keenly interested in zoning, the rezoning process involves legal procedure and is typically reported in the local newspaper. If Grandpa legally rezoned a residential or agricultural property so that he could build a factory, there will be newspaper accounts, in addition to the courthouse records. You may be surprised at what relatives show up as employees of the family business.


Most people are never party to a lawsuit. When they are, most of the time the lawsuit has nothing to do with breaking the law. Most lawsuits are disagreements over property lines, money, and other issues. A lawsuit is different from other legal documents because a lawsuit can include time in the courtroom, in front of a judge. It can also include witnesses. These witnesses just might be relatives!


Keep track of all legal actions involving a relative. As with any good genealogical information, legal information is proof that a relative was at a given location at a specific point in time.

Coming soon. The Compleat Genealogical Database and:
  • Marital status
  • Politics

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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