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Getting help understanding civil law terms

So The Legal Genealogist was down in Louisiana this past weekend, speaking at the East Baton Rouge Parish Library.

No, that’s not a church library.

LA.sealAnywhere else, it would have been called a county library.

But Louisiana doesn’t have counties, it has parishes.

Originally, you see, Louisiana was under the control of the French and the Spanish, both of which were heavily influenced by Roman Catholicism. And the original jurisdictions were the church parishes. In 1807, when the territorial legislature set up civil jurisdictions, it followed the same basic jurisdictional lines — and kept the name: parish.1

So don’t go looking for county records in Louisiana. You look, instead, for parish records.

And that’s only part of the problem of dealing with Louisiana research, particularly when it comes to the law.

Because Louisiana was under that French and Spanish authority, right up to the Louisiana purchase, its laws developed and grew out of the civil law followed largely on the European continent, rather than the common law of England that most of the former British colonies followed.2

And that civil law has language all its own.

For example, you won’t find guardians appointed for children in Louisiana records. Children under the age of 14 got tutors (or tutrixes, if the person appointed was female). Where an older person needed a guardian (such as an insane adult), the person got a curator (or curatrix).

It’s usually called a probate in common law jurisdictions, but a succession in the civil law.

Where the common law divides property into realty (land) and personalty (everything else), the civil law divides them into immovables and movables.

You won’t find a life estate being created in Louisiana land. Instead, it’s called a usufruct.


So… where can you turn for help if you run into these words?

A couple of places, actually.

You can start with a regular law dictionary. Both Black’s Law Dictionary and Bouvier’s Law Dictionary will contain many of the civil law terms.3

But there are also specific tools to use too. Louisiana lawyer N. Stephan Kinsella wrote an article for the Louisiana Law Review in 1994 called “A Civil Law to Common Law Dictionary” that’s readily available online.4 It covers many of the most puzzling terms that appear in legal documents we encounter in Louisiana research.

He’s gone on to expand his article into a book, co-authored with Gregory W. Rome, called Louisiana Civil Law Dictionary, available at — among other places — Amazon and well worth the $10 for the Kindle version and $26 for the paperback.5

So yes it’s harder to understand for those of us from the common-law states. But there is help — and it’s worth the effort.


  1. See generally “Louisiana is the only state to have parishes and not counties,” Vermilion Parish Tourist Commission ( : accessed 24 July 2016).
  2. See generally “About Louisiana,” ( : accessed 24 July 2016) (“Early French and Spanish settlers influenced the legal system in Louisiana. … The resulting system of ‘civil law’ in the Louisiana does differ from the ‘common-law’ systems in the other 49 states”).
  3. See Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891); John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States of America and of the Several States of the American Union, rev. 6th ed. (Philadelphia: Childs & Peterson, 1856).
  4. N. Stephan Kinsella, “A Civil Law to Common Law Dictionary,” 54 La. L. Rev. (1994); PDF online, LSU Digital Commons ( accessed 24 July 2016).
  5. Gregory W. Rome and Stephan Kinsella, Louisiana Civil Law Dictionary (New Orleans: Quid Pro Books, 2011).
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