Is there a consistent way to handle variant spellings of a family name?

+23 votes
in Policy and Style by Diantha McBride G2G1 (1.1k points)
retagged by Keith Hathaway

3 Answers

+25 votes
Best answer

Last Name At Birth should be what was used on records contemporary to the time of the person's birth-- their birth record, the marriage record of their parents, etc.

Their name as spelled at the time they died should be placed in Current Last Name.

Variants that appeared on records can appear in Other Last Names.

by Jillaine Smith G2G6 Pilot (929k points)
selected by Porter Fann
I always thought "other last names" was to reflect multiple marriages rather than spelling variations.  Earlier records had many spelling variations depending on the limited education of the one who was filling out the record or what he "thought" he heard them say.  We frequently see this on births, marriages, census records, and death certificates which are subjective to the informant.  I was told that double consonants and can be dropped or vowels changed without any legal consequence. Therefore, I would not completely agree that the oldest records would be the most accurate.  I prefer to use the most commonly used spelling of the family surname contemporary to the individual.

There have been some changes to the help pages about this since 2016. See:

I just, more or less asked this question again.  The problem is that records from the time of the individual vary in spellings, so....?
+13 votes
Jillaine's answer is a good rule of thumb, however I have had situations where every "contemporary to the time of birth record etc." was different. Like most things in life the circumstance should trump the rule when necessary...not that here shouldn't be a rule...just that it can be trumped by circumstance.
by Brett Rutherford G2G6 Pilot (129k points)
True, the last name of the parents and the last name spelling on the person of interest"s birth record may be in conflict, but more often it won't be and these checks are the first place to start.
+6 votes
With regard to variations in surname spelling, it is important to distinguish between, and identify, the variants and deviants of any given surname.

Surname Variant: phonetically similar surname spelling which is used by a family and/or consistently recorded in official documents, for at least several consecutive generations, including the present.

Surname Deviant: surname spelling which results from recorder unfamiliarity and/or recording/transcribing/indexing/coding error(s), and is not used by a family and/or consistently recorded in official documents, for at least several consecutive generations, including the present.

Official Document: document created and maintained by officials containing records of birth, adoption, marriage, divorce, death, residence, military service, land transaction or taxation, pension payment, or probate.

Because surname variants and deviants are discovered in the process of genealogical research, indicating deviant surnames in the "Other Last Names" field serves no constructive purpose.

When variant surnames occur, they should be indicated in the "Last Name at Birth" and/or "Current Last Name" fields.

So, I also prefer to limit the "Other Last Names" field to multiple marriage surnames.
by Alan Galusha G2G6 (6.0k points)
Last Name at Birth field is not for multiple names unless the name was hyphenated (with or without the hyphen).

Current Last Name field, likewise, is not for multiple names unless the name was hyphenated (with or without the hyphen), and is meant to reflect the last known name used — usually that as recorded at time of death (unless it is clearly a misspelling).

All "variants" should be added to the Other Last Names field.


Thanks for the distinctions between variants and deviants. A good thing to consider.

But WT's help page clearly indicates that OLN is used for more than names from multiple marriages (which would make it only used on female profiles):


By "variants" do you mean variations in surname spelling, or surname variants?

You're welcome.

I obviously disagree with the current WT policy regarding use of the OLN field (for the reason indicated).

All variations/differences.  (Well, the most commonly found for the person.  Any others could be explained under a Research Notes header.)

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