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The law had a bang-up day yesterday at the APG PMC in SLC.

And if you don’t know what those initials stand for, you’re really missing out.

effdateAPG is the Association of Professional Genealogists.1 There’s a ton of information about APG available on its website, a directory listing members if you’re thinking about hiring a professional to help with your research, and a ton of members-only benefits that you really shouldn’t pass up if you’re a professional genealogist or even a professional-genealogist-in-training.

PMC is the annual Professional Management Conference, a two-day conference focusing on topics of interest to the professional genealogist.2

And SLC is Salt Lake City, home to this year’s PMC Conference, next week’s Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy and, of course, the Family History Library and its world-class resources for genealogical research.

So how is it that the law had such a good day at the APG PMC in SLC?

Well, the talks at the PMC each year are many and varied. Some of them are aimed at the business side of professional genealogy — talks like yesterday’s “Taxes and the Professional Genealogist” by James M. Beidler or today’s “Time Management for Genealogists” by Angela Packer McGhie. Some of them are skills-oriented like the three-part “You’ve Got Options: Many Ways to Cite Right” workshop by Thomas W. Jones, Ph.D., CG, CGL, co-editor of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

And some of them are general genealogical topics that professionals — and, in fact, all genealogists — need to know more about. “DNA and Genealogical Proof,” presented by Angie Bush. “Mind Maps for Genealogy,” presented by Ron Arons. And “Finding the Law,” presented by The Legal Genealogist.

It was great fun. We got to talk about the general legal system in the United States, how some types of laws win out if there’s a conflict with others. We got to talk about the resources that help us find the laws we’re looking for. Places like the amazing website from the Library of Congress, Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation.3 And we got to talk about finding the right laws — the ones in effect at the time a record was created and in the place it was created.

And that gave rise to a great question from a participant in yesterday’s presentation. He asked about the time when new statutes took effect: would all the laws passed at one session of the legislature take effect at the same time, for example? And how would we know?

When a law became law can be critically important in analyzing a document: was this the law in effect at the time, or was that the law? And there are a couple of general rules:

• Laws generally take effect when they’re signed by the President (if federal) or Governor (if state or territorial). With federal laws published in the Statutes at Large — the ones you’ll find on the Century of Lawmaking website, each law has the date on which it was signed in the marginal notes. So, for example, the Homestead Act of 1862 became law on 20 May 1862, the day it was signed by President Lincoln.4

Some laws don’t take effect right away but, instead, have some different effective date written into the laws themselves. They may contain a date certain. In Virginia, for example, the legislature that met in October 1785 completely rewrote the probate code and changed the basic rules of inheritance. And because it wanted to give Virginia residents plenty of time to rewrite their wills and other legal documents to conform to the new law, it specified that the statute wouldn’t take effect until 1 January 1787.5 Or it might be something like a date like 90 days from the passage of the act.

Bottom line: read the statute carefully to see if it contains an effective date. If it does, that controls. If it doesn’t, then look for the date it was signed into law.


  1. See the organization’s website. Association of Professional Genealogists, accessed 8 Jan 2015.
  2. See “2015 APG Professional Management Conference,” Association of Professional Genealogists ( : accessed 8 Jan 2015).
  3. “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875,” Library of Congress, American Memory ( : accessed 8 Jan 2015).
  4. “An Act to secure Homesteads to actual Settlers on the Public Domain,” 12 Stat. 392 (20 May 1862); digital images, “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875,” Library of Congress, American Memory ( : accessed 8 Jan 2015).
  5. “An act concerning wills, …” Chapter LX, Laws of 1785, in William Waller Hening, ed., The Statutes at Large … of Virginia (Richmond: p.p., 1823), 12:138 et seq.
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