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Legal Terms Provide Clues

A basic knowledge of legal terms is necessary for successful family history research.


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Resource: GenWeekly
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Legal records in all forms - deeds, wills, guardianships, estates, marriages, deaths, births - provide a wealth of information for the genealogist. When researching ancestors, it is important to have a basic knowledge of legal terms. Legal records often provide tantalizing clues to relationships within a family. Legal records may be found in county courthouses, at state and national archives and online.

Twenty commonly used legal terms and their meanings are listed below.

ADMINISTRATOR, ADMINISTRATRIX: Court appointed individual who settles the estate of a deceased person. This person may or may not be a relative. (These records are usually found in the Probate/Ordinary Court.)

ATTEST: Affirm that something is true. An action often performed by a relative or a friend.

BOUNTY LAND WARRANT: A right to a specific number of acres in the

public domain, usually given for military service. These applications may contain such information as the name, age, residence, military unit and service for the veteran, or if the applicant was an heir, the name, age and place of residence of the applicant (widow or child) may be given.

CHANCERY: A court of public record.

CONSANGUINEOUS: Descended from a common ancestor.

EXECUTOR, EXECUTRIX: A person, often a relative, designated in a will to carry out the requests of the will.

FEE SIMPLE: Land in which the inheritor or grantee has complete ownership.

GRANTOR: Individual giving or selling property.

GRANTEE: Individual receiving or buying property.

GUARDIAN: A person, often court appointed, who looks after the interest of infants (individuals not of legal age.) This person may or may not be a relative.

INDENTURE: A deed or written contract. Often this word is only thought to mean that a person was bound to another, but the word may be used in many ways.

INFANT: Individual not of legal age.

INTESTATE: A person who dies without leaving a will. Documents listing disposition of property, inventories and accounts will often be found in this instance.

LEGATEES: Individuals named in the will, usually relatives and friends.

PATENT: Land title given by the government.

POLL TAX: In many states, a tax levied on all males aged twenty-one to sixty-five. Records may or may not have been kept by the individual counties.

RELICT: Usually refers to a widow.

TESTATOR: Person who has a will in force at the time of death and has named legatees.

WITNESS: Persons, usually relatives or friends, who attest to the validity of a legal document. These names often lead to other family relationships.

WARRANTEE: Individual receiving the bounty land warrants. The file will show the warrant number, number of acres granted, date issued and name of the warrantee.

Any doubt about the meaning of the word indicates the need to use a dictionary. It may be necessary to research the word in the context of the time. The Oxford English Dictionary ( is available online for a fee to individuals, but it may be accessed in most public and academic libraries online or by the books themselves. Each word's meaning is traced back to its first meaning.

Legal documents yield a wealth of clues to relationships and may often be used to find former places of residence. It is worth the time to learn the meanings of the words and the nuances of the relationships in the documents.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

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

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