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The language of the law. Part Latin, part Greek, part law French, even part Anglo-Saxon. And all confusing.

The Legal Genealogist assures you, dear reader: the relationship didn’t morph in all the years of Clarence Wells’ life.

Joe Wells is clearly the name in the box for father’s name on the death certificate of Clarence Walter Wells, who was born in North Carolina in 1898 and died there in 1966.1

The same Joe Wells who had the two-year-old son Clarence enumerated in his household in 1900,2 and in 1920.3

The same Joe D. Wells shown as the father on Clarence’s World War I draft registration form.4

And the same Joseph D. Wells who shows up in the records of the Superior Court of Gaston County, North Carolina, in April of 1906 as the “next friend” of Clarence Wells, in an action for damages against the Loray Mills.5

Wells v. Loray Mills caption

No, Joe Wells didn’t stop being Clarence’s father.

So… what’s with this “next friend” bit?

The law dictionary definition of the term is a “person, usually a relative, not appointed by the court, in whose name suit is brought by an infant, married woman, or other person not sui juris.”6

Which would be a lot more helpful if it didn’t mean going off to determine that sui juris means “of his own right; possessing full social and civil rights; not under any legal disability, or the power of another, or guardianship. Having capacity to manage one’s own affairs; not under legal disability to act for one’s self.”7

Meaning the next friend is needed for somebody not competent to act for himself or herself.

Which is why it’s sometimes better to look at sources beyond the usual-suspect law dictionaries, like Wex, the “community-built, freely available legal dictionary and legal encyclopedia” of Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute.

Because there the explanation is pretty straightforward. A next friend is:

Someone who appears in court in place of another who is not competent to do so, usually because they are a minor or are considered incompetent. Often the role is filled by a parent or other relative; it can be any legally-competent person whose interests do not run counter to those of the person on whose behalf they are acting. The “next friend” is not a party to the proceeding, nor are they a formally-appointed guardian. Instead, they are considered an agent of the court whose role is to protect the rights of the incompetent person.8

So Joe Wells really was Clarence’s father, not just a friend.

He was simply the competent adult representing Clarence’s interests, just as most next friends in court, land and other records we encounter as genealogists are family members of some stripe of the minors, married women, and other legally incompetent folks on whose behalf they act.9

Yes, it’s a matter of friendship.

But only in the language of the law.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “A matter of friendship,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 15 June 2022).


  1. North Carolina State Board of Health, death certif. no. 11153, Clarence Walter Wells (1966); digital images, “North Carolina, U.S., Death Certificates, 1909-1976,” ( : accessed 15 June 2022).
  2. 1900 U.S. census, Rutherford County, North Carolina, population schedule, Colfax, enumeration district (ED) 132, p. 58B (stamped), dwelling/family 161, Clarance Wells in Joseph Wells household; digital image, ( : accessed 15 June 2022); imaged from NARA microfilm T623, roll 1216.
  3. 1920 U.S. census, Rutherford County, North Carolina, population schedule, Colfax, enumeration district (ED) 156, p. 42A (stamped), dwelling/family 3, Clarance Wells in J.D. Wells household; digital image, ( : accessed 15 June 2022); imaged from NARA microfilm T625, roll 1321.
  4. Registration Card, Clearance Walter Wells, 12 Sep 1918, Rutherford County, North Carolina; digital images, “U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918,” ( : accessed 15 June 2022).
  5. See Wells v. Loray Mills, Gaston County (N.C.), Superior Court, Miscellaneous Records, 1847-1910, C.R.040.928.001; North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh.
  6. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 813, “next friend.”
  7. Ibid., 1185, “sui juris.”
  8. Wex, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School ( : accessed 15 June 2022), “Next friend.”
  9. Yes, married women were considered legally incompetent to act on their own behalf for many years. Right into the 20th century in many jurisdictions. Really.
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