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The language of the law. Part Latin, part Anglo-Saxon, all confusing.

It’s one of those words even The Legal Genealogist can look at… and be led astray by.

The term apostille just plain flat out looks like it ought to involve something to do with the Postal Service, doesn’t it?

johnny_automatic_lettersAnd, I suppose, since it’s something that really is used when an item is sent from place A to place B, it’s not an entirely unreasonable thought.

But it honestly doesn’t have anything to do with postage stamps or mail and you can’t get one at the Post Office.

Nor, I regret to say, can you realistically hope for any help in figuring it out by going to my usual go-to source for legal definitions. Black’s Law Dictionary simply defines an apostille as an “addition; a marginal note or observation.”1

Um… not exactly.

You see, an apostille is “a government-issued certification that authenticates a public document for use in a foreign country.”2

You’ll see the term used today by various state and national governments to mean “a form of authentication issued to documents for use in countries that participate in the Hague Convention of 1961.”3

But it’s also the type of document you’ll find in older cases whenever there was an international issue. You’ll see it, for example, in a probate file where one of the heirs was not from the United States. Documents sent from, say, Germany to Illinois for use in distributing an estate need to be proved to be authentic, and the method used is and has long been the apostille.

It’s generally a stamp (under both the 1961 Hague treaty and under prior practice between the United States and other countries) attached to the document where the official role of everybody in the document’s chain gets verified.4 The local clerk might swear to the claimant’s signature, then a local judge verifies that the local clerk is the local clerk, and a higher judge verifies that the local judge is the local judge and so on up the governmental food chain.

If this sounds familiar, think about the times you’ve seen something like this in, for example, pension files, where the county clerk certifies a document, then the county judge verifies that the county clerk was the county clerk and so on.

Where will you find the apostille in any given case? It should be attached to the document or documents at issue. If the document came from a foreign country for use in an American proceeding, it should be in the court file here. And if it was issued in the United States for use in a foreign proceeding, it should be in the court file there.


Enough to make you go postal, maybe…


Image: User Johnny Automatic,

  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 77, “apostille.”
  2. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary ( : accessed 6 Oct 2014), “apostille.”
  3. See, e.g., “What is an Apostille?Corporations, Washington State Secretary of State ( : accessed 6 Oct 2014).
  4. See Wikipedia (, “Apostille Convention,” rev. 18 Sep 2014.
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