Reference Centre, Genealogy 101

Answers to Genealogy FAQs - Meaning of in-law

Whether "in-law" is applied to son, daughter, brother or sister is not important. What is important is the customary use of the term "in-law" as it was used to describe the relationship of various members of a family throughout the past centuries. The term "step" did not come into 'common' usage until the late-1850s and even then it took awhile to really catch on as a relationship description.  By the time of the 1870 census most true "step" relationships were being recorded as such. There were exceptions, though.

Prior to that time, the term "in-law" was routinely used to signify a child who was the biological child of one partner only. Thus, if a woman had children from a previous marriage then her children would have been known as the husband's child - signifying that the child had become part of the wife's family by the operation of law. Conversely, though, if a man had children from a previous marriage then his children would have been known as the wife's child"-in-law" in her Will should she have survived her husband.

An example of this delicate problem of definition in operation can be seen in the 1659 Will of Thomas Milsted of Bethersden, Kent. At the time his Will had been written Thomas had married his second wife, Anne Chaplen.

"Item, I give and bequeath unto RICHARD RICHARDSON, my son in law, twelve pounds of lawful English money to be paid to him within one month next after my decease....Item, I give and bequeath unto ANNE CHAPLEN and ELIZABETH CHAPLEN my daughters in law, five shillings of lawful English money to be paid to either of them within one whole year next after my decease."

Thomas Milsted had married, as his second wife, Anne Chaplin or Chaplen, during 1642. There are no known children had by Anne with Thomas Milsted only three or four - baptisms still not yet fully discovered - by her first husband, Thomas Chaplin. The difficult "son in law" relationship stated in the Will of Thomas Milsted in relation to Richard Richardson is proving difficult

The Anne Chaplen referred to in the Will eventually goes on to marry Thomas Milsted's son, John Milsted circa 1660. Although we do not have the marriage date or place for Anne Chaplen and John Milsted, the marriage is in fact, confirmed through the Will of Anne's mother, Anne Milsted formerly Chaplen, nee Bowyer, vizt.,

"The sixth day of the month commonly called March in the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred sixty and four [1664], I, ANNE MILSTED, of Bethersden in the County of Kent, widow, being sick and weak in body but of good and perfect mind and memory, do make and ordain this my last Will and Testament in manner and form following, that is to say:

"First of all I give and bequeath unto my daughter, ANNE, the wife of JOHN MILSTED one shilling of lawful English money to be paid unto her with one month next after my decease."

Further confirmation that Anne Milsted is the same wife as the one referred to in Thomas Milsted's Will is provided by the bequest left by Anne to her other daughter, Elizabeth:

"Also all other my goods and chattels whatsoever not before bequeathed in this my present Will, my debts, legacies and funeral expenses being paid and discharged I wholly give and bequeath unto my daughter, ELIZABETH CHAPLEN whom I make, ordain and appoint to be my full whole and sole Executrix of this my last Will and Testament."

While it is wholly possible that the Elizabeth Chaplen referred to above may in fact have been a daughter-in-law of Anne Milsted, rather than her biological daughter, it is doubtful that Anne would have appointed Elizabeth her sole Executrix were it so. The more likely and accepted course of action for the times would have been to appoint John Milsted, Anne's son-in-law, as her Executor.

As you can see from the examples above, herein lies the difficulty when describing what we know as an "in-law", today, and how it was commonly used in times distantly past.

The man or woman who married into a family who would be known to us, today, as a daughter- or son-in-law, was treated as a part of the whole family unit by the operation of law and, therefore, was simply referred to as a "son" or "daughter". If the biological child predeceased his/her spouse and/or parents, the son- or daughter-in-law would still be referred to as a "son" or "daughter". Consequently, great care must be exercised whenever a relationship definition is encountered in a document, particularly in a Will. The same operation of definition holds true for those individuals described as brothers or sisters in documents but bear different surnames from the primary creator of the document. Always ask yourself: Is this in-law a true in-law as we know the term to represent an individual today? Is this description of a brother or sister, son or daughter a true description as we know the terms to represent individuals today or are they perhaps in-laws?

These unfamiliar definitions of relationships have to be treated with caution while we examine census. However, the biggest problem can lay with Wills, land records and other documents where the whole household inter-relationships are not succinctly specified.

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