How to Record Major Life Changes

This Roots to the Past column originally appeared in newspapers in September 2011.

Life would be simple if our ancestors were recorded in public records when they were born, were named and aged correctly in each census, married with the proper papers, registered every birth of their children and then died with a death record, obituary and headstone. But let’s face it, they weren’t. Things cropped up and our ancestors blazed their own trails just as folks are doing today.

How is information for individuals who swayed from the beaten path logged in research? It all depends on the individual researcher. However, there are few standard methods to consider.

Individuals who changed their name can throw a knot in a family tree. They’re not trying to mess up your research and make things difficult; they just want a new handle for whatever reason. Sometimes only first names were changed. These instances are easy to record. For example, a name might be entered as ‘Rupert’ Phillip Edward Grey, and in the note section it might state this person was born Phillip Edward Grey and changed his name to Rupert Grey. Or Rupert might be recorded only in the note section.

A complete name change is another ordeal because it appears as though someone unrelated to the family has been ‘adopted’. This recently happened in our family, and I wondered what to do about it. To record the birth name only in my database would be wrong and misleading, but to record only the new name would be equally so.

From what I’ve read on the Internet, the ideal method is to record the birth name and state in the note section the new name and the date it was changed if known. This will tell others what name to research in any given time frame. This is similar to when a woman decides to change her name when she weds. Her birth name is first entered and then her married name appears elsewhere in the database.

Similar changes in an individual’s life can be recorded in the same manner. For example, if a person had a sex change, the sex at birth is recorded in the main database and information is added in the note section regarding the change.

Sex-changes, also known as gender reassignments, can be a sensitive topic within families. The general rule is to record the birth name and sex in the main database and enter the new sex along with any name changes associated with it in the note section. However, some researchers may choose to do the opposite. Still others may decide to ignore the birth information entirely. If this is done, the information will be misleading and cause confusion to future researchers using the database.

Regardless of the method utilised to enter information, the important thing is to keep it consistent throughout the database to avoid misunderstanding.

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2 thoughts on “How to Record Major Life Changes

  1. My father was born with the first names Norman Edison and I have his birth certificate with that name, The thing is he went through his life with the first names being James Aubrey. He had to show school records and census records to get it.He was even in the army with that name change. Go figure.

    • During my research I uncovered a few individuals who did not go by the name on their birth certificate, so I think it wasn’t a rare thing to happen years ago. I think it’s less likely now.

      Thanks for visiting, Carolyn, and leaving a comment.

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