Published on October 11, 2021 by Leigh A. Jones, Evening and Weekend Reference Librarian  

It’s Family History Month, and, maybe, you’ve been thinking that it’s time to take a deep dive into learning about your family tree. However, your love for all things law and legalese may stop you from venturing out of the comfort that you have found in your daily routine of analyzing cases and statutes. There’s good news, though; your love for the law doesn’t mean that you can’t develop a new love for genealogical research. In fact, your legal research skills could be extremely beneficial to your search for connections to your ancestors.  

 If you search for information about genealogy and its relationship to the law, you can find helpful and interesting writings about how the law can be used to locate evidence of family relationships and activities. You might come across The Legal Genealogist, a blog published by Judy G. Russell that spotlights different legal issues and sources that surface during the process of family history research.  Also, you might come across  a few books, such as Genealogy and the Law: A Guide to Legal Sources for the Family Historian, written by Kay Freilich and William B Freilich, that provide specific information about how legal resources can be used within the context of genealogical research. You might even come across National Genealogical Society Quarterly, which once published a theme issue (“Law and Genealogy”) that digs into the ways that common law, civil law, statute law, and church law can be analyzed to determine family relationships. Fortunately, as you can see, there are good places to begin the exploration of the connections between genealogy and the law. 

If you are new to family history research, the following are a few questions about the law that you might have to ask before you begin your search for information about your ancestors: 

  • What does the law say about access to vital records?

Vital records, which include birth, marriage, divorce, and death certificates, provide information about significant life events that are needed to piece together a family’s history. The records are, typically, held in the place where the event took place, with the laws of that location governing access to those documents. In Alabama, for example, the Center for Health Statistics manages the vital records system, and state law dictates who can gain access to those records. According to Alabama law, birth certificates are confidential with restricted access for 125 years from the date of birth. This year, my grandfather, who was born in Alabama, would have been 114-years-old. Therefore, as of now, I would not be able to access his birth certificate as evidence of his birth. However, my father (my grandfather’s son), would be able to obtain that document. When searching for vital records, remember to look into the law that governs access to those records so that you will know if you can use that information for your family history research. 

  • Is there any information about cemetery access laws?

Cemeteries are places where genealogical research can take place. Information found on headstones can provide death dates, birth dates, and, perhaps, information about family relationships. Determining who is buried next to each other in a cemetery might even provide some clues about connections. Many cemeteries are difficult to access because they are located on private property, they are hidden by new construction, or they have been poorly maintained. Also, the ownership of certain cemeteries might have even changed hands numerous times, and there might be uncertainty about who, currently, owns the land. In situations like these, it might be necessary to check the laws of the cemeteries’ locations to find out if there are proper ways to access those gravesites. On the website for the Alabama Historical Commission’s Cemetery Program, information is provided about Alabama’s Cemetery Access Law. You should check the codes of other states and other state websites in other to identify similar information. 

  • How does the law affect access to United States Census records?

United States census records can be used as tools to discover information about family members. Census records might provide information about relatives’ birthdates, relatives’ jobs, family members’ places of residence, family relationships, family members who lived in the same household, and more. Although census records can provide a wealth of information about a family’s history, access to that information might be limited. The 72-Year-Rule (Public Law 95-416) dictates that personally identifiable information about an individual cannot be released to the public until 72 years after the year in which it was collected for the census. Therefore, it is important to understand how the law might hinder genealogical research that covers specific dates. 

These are just a few ways that you can begin to explore the entanglements of genealogy and the law. Perhaps, this provides a little encouragement to research your family’s history.