The Pensioned Soldiers of Invalides
Old French in Old Documents

Recognizing a Child - Reconnaissance d'enfant

Yes Sir that's my baby 




Time for a little bit of explanation about cultural differences, which lead to legal differences. As genealogists, we seem to be fine in accepting that people long ago, our ancestors, had different views as to right and wrong, good and bad, clean and dirty, tasty and foul. As cross-cultural genealogists, we must be able to have the same open mindedness about the customs of other cultures. Recently, that some people seem to have had slight seizures on receiving the translations of their ancestors' actes de naissances has us thinking an educational aside is in order.

The civil registration of a birth, an acte de naissance, has been explained in detail elsewhere. Over the years, there have been rules about adding marginal notes. Since 1945, the date of death has been added in the margin of the person's birth registration. Marriages were added from 1897. Adoption in 1955. Those who died in battle, mort pour la France, have had that noted since 1915. These marginal notes seem acceptable enough to non-French. What causes some confusion are the notes about the changed legal status of a child. 

Since the early nineteenth century, an illegitimate child could be recognized and so, gain some rights to inherit. The child could also be legitimated, if the parents married and both recognized the child as theirs. Below are the basic points:


  • An enfant naturel was a child born to an unmarried woman. Often, the father was simply "not named" or, occasionally stated as "unknown". The child would have had the same surname as the mother.
  • In 1804, the status of a recognized child was established. A note in the margin that says the child was recognized, reconnu, by the father means that the father went before the officer of the  état civil and swore that the child was his. This gave the child a legally recognized connection to a parent,  filiation, and some rights to inherit. 
  • If the parents of the child married, they would at the same time swear that the child was theirs and this would legitimate the child's birth. This légitimation would be noted in the margin of the child's acte de naissance, the surname would change and the child would have full legal rights in relation to both parents.

We have grown quite fond of these marginal notes, for they make a birth registration a whole life story, albeit often illegible. 


Today, French law recognizes no difference between children born to parents of different marital status, and all have equal inheritance rights. In relation to reconnaissance and légitimation, we are often asked if the French law had a way to guarantee that the man who recognized and/or legitimated a child was truly the biological father. To which we can only reply: Don't be silly.

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy