Legal Name Change


I am a member of the Yahoo Group AQ_NFS. This is a forum for people who take advantage of the links available within Ancestral Quest to the FamilySearch Family Tree. A group member posed an interesting question:

I have a niece with the Given Name of Ruth Smith, she married and then went by Ruth Jones, she then divorced and legally changed her name to Ruth Johnson. My question, from a genealogy standpoint, is she known as Ruth Smith, Ruth Jones, or Ruth Johnson?

Along with others, I gave my opinion, then I changed my mind. I decided to focus on the side issue rather than the actual question. That side issue is: How do I handle a Legal Name Change? By this, I am not referring to the name change which usually takes place because of a marriage. I am thinking specifically about the kind where you go to the court and petition for a legal change of your name.

My concern is that there should be a way in AQ to show an audit trail of the name changes. It is possible to have more than one legal name change. I decided against using Notes because I usually look at notes as an afterthought. I suspect that there are many people who fill in the blanks of the Edit Individual screen but don’t get around to looking at the notes for everyone they import. I decided to create a Legal Name Change event.

Like many of you, I begin tracking an individual by their Birth Name. My Grandfather’s name according to the records was George Albert Beattie McIntyre.


His mother’s maiden name was Crombie, and shortly after his birth, she changed his name to George Albert Beattie Crombie McIntyre. I don’t know if she went through a legal process. Let’s pretend that she did. I want an Other Event for my grandfather which shows where and when his name was changed, and what the changes were.


On the Edit Individual screen, I click on the Add button to add the event. I scroll down the list of possible events and find that there is no event for a Legal Name Change. To create it, I click on the Add Type button.


I give my event a Title, a Short Title, and an Abbreviation. I specify that I want to use a Single Date, One Place, and Two Descriptions. I want the first Description to show the new Legal Name, and I want the second Description to show the prior name. I click the Add button to add this event to the list of possible events.


Oops! AQ will not let me create a new event without giving it the codes it needs in order to know how to form a sentence describing the event. If you would like to add a Legal Name Change event to your file, feel free to copy the code below, and paste it into the large box in the Sentence Usage section. Here is the code I will use:

‘%3 legally changed %{his;her;the} name%%%%[%0; from %0; from %1].’ (WAIT, not yet)

Copy everything from the first percent sign to the final period. Do not copy the first and last single quote. After you paste it, the Sentence box should look like this:


The Sample sentence shows what will be generated if the Gender, Date, Place and the first Description are filled in. The fields are considered populated if the corresponding radio button or checkbox is checked or clicked. Let’s break down the sentence building code and learn how it works. Let’s start at the very beginning. Our first code is:


If we put only %3 into the sentence box, the output is:


The %3 code places either the word He or She‘ into the sentence, depending upon the gender of this individual. If the gender is Unknown, the %3 code will cause AQ to select the first given name of the individual. In the Sample sentence, the default first given name is always Lynn. If my grandfather’s gender were specified as Unknown, the %3 would place George into the sentence.

Next, we will include some text in the sentence. I will place it in single quotes so that the spaces before and after the text are visible.

‘ legally changed ‘

Now we will insert the next code


In this code, replace the word Male with the word/words you want to see if the individual is a male. In our case we will use ‘his‘ as the word. For Femaleher‘ will be our word. For Unknown, ‘the‘ will be the word. What we will actually enter is:



We have switched from a male to a female, so AQ has changed He to She and is using her as the last word. Now I will show the next section of the code. Pay attention to the space. The single quotes make the space visible.

‘ name’

Here ‘ name’ is text to be inserted into the sentence. It is followed by this code:



The code %5 represents Date 1. When there is a < sign between the % and the 5, AQ knows that we are asking whether this individual has a Date 1 value in the Legal Name Change event record. If it does not, it looks ahead and discards everything up to the next > sign. If there is a value in the Date 1 field, AQ follows the instructions immediately after the 5. Those instructions look like this:

‘ ‘

It is a space character, so AQ copies the space into the sentence. Next, AQ finds:



The %@ tells AQ to examine Date 1 and see if it contains before, after, or about. If it does, it will be inserted into the sentence. AQ checks Date 1 to see if it is a complete date or a partial date. If it is complete AQ inserts ‘on’ into the sentence. If it is a partial date, AQ inserts ‘in’ into the sentence.  AQ now finds a space and inserts the space into the sentence. Next, AQ finds the code %5 and inserts the date into the sentence. If the Date 1 field was blank, nothing is inserted relating to the date. Note that the gender is now Unknown, so the first word in the sentence is Lynn instead of He or She.


The next set of codes is:

‘%<6 at %6>’

%6 is the code for Place 1. AQ checks to see if there is anything in the Place 1 field. If there is, it first copies ‘ at ‘ into the sentence, then copies the place into the sentence. Note that we indicated that there is no value in the Date 1 field, and the gender is now Male, so the sentence changes as needed.


The next set of codes is:

‘%<7 to %7>’

%7 is the code for Description 1. AQ checks to see if there is a value in the Description 1 field. If there is, AQ copies ‘ to ‘ into the sentence, then copies the content of the Description 1 field to the sentence.


The next set of codes is:

%[%0; from %0; from %1].‘  I’m changing this one to

‘ from  %[%0;%0;%1].’

There are two different flavors of Legal Name Change.  The first is the type where you change a name from either its Birth Name value or its Married Name value to a Legal Name Change value. Statistically, this is more likely to happen than the type where the name is changed from the current Legal Name Change value to a different Legal Name Change value. Everyone who has changed a name legally has gone through the first process. Only those who have legally changed names more than once go through the second type. Since the first type happens for everyone who makes a legal name change, I made it easier by not requiring the second Description field to be entered.

The code above is called an If Then Else. The If comes before the first semicolon. The condition we are using is %0. It means, “If there is a value in the second Description field…. The value before the second semicolon is the Then part. This is what AQ will do if the condition %0 is true. If there is a value in the Description 2 field it will be copied into the sentence. The part after the second semicolon is called the Else. That is what happens if the condition %0 is false. If there is no value in the Second Description, the full name of the Individual is copied to the sentence. The last thing that happens is that the period is copied to the sentence.

Here is an example of how the whole thing works.

My grandfather’s Birth Name was George Albert Beattie McIntyre. His mom changed it to George Albert Beattie Crombie McIntyre.


On the Edit Individual screen click the Add button to add the first Legal Name Change event. Scroll down to Legal Name Change and highlight it. Click the Select button.


Fill in the date, place and new legal name. Watch the Sample Sentence as it forms. This sentence will go into your documentation.


This begins our audit trail.

When Grandpa went to school, the teacher called roll and referred to him as George ABC McIntyre. The other students began calling him Alphabet. He went home and announced to his mother, “I am no longer a Crombie!”


The second legal name change requires that we place the prior Legal Name in Description 2.


Here is our audit trail.

As he grew older, he always referred to himself as George AB McIntyre. He didn’t actually change his name, but here is how it would have looked if he had.


Notice that his second Legal Name was the same as his Birth Name, so it wasn’t necessary to enter the second Description.


And the audit trail is there.

If you actually change the name on the Edit Individual screen after each legal name change, it is never necessary to enter the second Description.

OK, my years as a programmer are catching up with me. I can’t resist making just one more tweak. It will not change the output of the event but it makes the code shorter. Here is the code that you should actually put into the Sentence box:

%3 legally changed %{his;her;the} name%%% from %[%0;%0;%1].

I read this after it was posted and I discovered that WordPress, my blogging software, looked at the code in the red area above, and decided that I was entering badly formatted HTML code. It removed what it didn’t like, so what you see is not what I wrote. I’m sorry that this can’t be cut and pasted, but this is what I wrote:


This is the code you should use if you plan to make your own Legal Name Change event.

Suggestions/Questions about AQ Will Do or Subjects discussed here? Click the Comment tab. I would like to hear from you!



  1. Rick H

    Thanks for this great article. A related issue I’ve been trying to figure out relates to when someone not only changes their name, but also their sex. Is there *any* way to handle this is AQ. (I haven’t found a way.)

    • Rick
      The answer to your question is both simple and complex. From a software point of view, changing the gender of an individual is as simple as editing the record and clicking a different radio button. If the record is linked to a marriage record as the husband or as the wife, the gender radio buttons are grayed out, and you can not make the change. If the individual is not linked to a marriage record as the husband or the wife the radio buttons are active, and the change can be made. That’s the simple answer. The more complex answer is needed if there was a marriage and a subsequent sex change. I am not aware of any genealogical standards which define how that situation should be handled, so we are breaking new ground. Here is one possible solution. In the record which shows the birth gender, show the name change. Create a record (a new individual) with the new gender and the new name, and show the same name change. Now marry the two records so that they will always be linked together. Create an Other Event called Sex Change where you show a date, a place, and the beginning and ending genders. Add this Other Event to both records. I know that no genealogical purists would accept this, but I also know that AQ will not handle a sex change for a married person, so “Ve duz vat ve kan duz.”

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