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Genealogy Australia: Tracing Family Histories in Different States and Territories

Looking up your family history for legal or personal reasons is done all over the world. There are certain aspects of conducting research into Genealogy Australia, however, that distinguish it from the way it’s carried out overseas.

Researching the family histories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, for instance, is unique to Australia. The country’s rich immigrant history also often means that genealogical research can’t be confined within its borders and will have to continue in Europe.

But what differentiates genealogy in Australia is how the various resources used for local research are not all or always found in a single, centralised or national organisation. The laws and processes involved in accessing these records also aren’t uniform across the country.

Each state or territory has its own system for filing these resources, which means that the way you would look up a will or a birth certificate in Queensland, for example, would be different from the way you would hunt up these records in New South Wales.

Let’s take a bird’s eye view of Genealogy Australia research in each territory as well as the processes and regulations that researchers need to follow.

Finding Wills

On top of the list of family members, information in wills that may be useful to a genealogy researcher include family conflicts, favourites, and people who aren’t family members but may be helpful as sources of further information.

Apart from the home or bank of the deceased, wills in NSW may also be found in the NSW Trustee & Guardian’s Will Safe. Apart from the NSW Trustee & Guardian, researchers may get in touch with the accountant, solicitor or financial advisor of the deceased, but they will have to give the full name, address and date of death of the deceased. They will also have to describe how they and the deceased are related.

South Australia also requires that anybody who looks for someone’s will has the right to do so, meaning you would have be the spouse or a parent or child of the deceased. Wills that have been filed with a law firm in this state are registered with the Wills Register of the Law Society of South Australia.

You can also find wills at the Supreme Court and the Probate Registry, although note that probate isn’t required in South Australia for very small estates. Though wills and Grants of Probate are public documents, you will have to pay when you get a copy from the Probate Registry.

In Queensland, the Supreme Court would have the original copy of a will only after the person’s death and only if the executor of that will submits an application for a Grant of Probate. Apart from and in relation to a will, researchers may also look for and request a copy of:

  • Letters of administration that came with the will
  • Letters of administration on intestacy
  • Probate
  • Applications for a Grant of Probate

Genealogy Australia researchers should note that more than one will belonging to a single person may be found in NSW and Queensland. The most recent version would be the valid one in NSW, while the Supreme Court of Queensland wouldn’t be able to tell you whether the will you are holding is the latest one.

Finding Birth, Death and Marriage Certificate

Civil or government records of these life events in Australia may generally be found in each of the Territory Registries whose records go as far back as:

  • Western Australia: 1841
  • Victoria: 1853
  • Tasmania: 1838
  • South Australia: 1842
  • Queensland: 1856
  • Northern Territory: 1870
  • New South Wales: 1856
  • Australian Capital Territory: 1930

Church records or parish registers for these life events in each of these states are also often referenced by researchers. Records may also be accessible through the National Library of Australia. Also note that when researching family histories for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, details may have been filed using a different system.

In NSW, looking for a birth certificate for Genealogy Australia research purposes is different from ordering a birth certificate for identification or other purposes. The NSW government offers free access to birth certificates from more than 100 years ago, marriage certificates from over 50 years ago, and death certificates from more than 30 years ago, with a fee for hard copies.

Note that though NSW didn’t require people to register births, deaths or marriages until 1856, they do have records that date as far back as 1788. Because they didn’t start filing paper documents until 1918, researchers may find incomplete information in older certificates.

Apart from birth, death and marriage certificates, South Australia also makes State Records available to genealogy researchers. In this state, birth certificates go back over 100 years, marriage certificates go back more than 75 years, and death certificates go back over 30 years.

In the Northern Territory, you will need to provide identification documents for yourself and for the person whose birth, death or marriage certificates you are looking for.

In Tasmania, births, deaths and marriages are under the Department of Justice. Birth records from more than 100 years ago, marriage records from over 75 years ago, and death records from more than 25 years ago are open to the public. Note that the Registrar can make decisions relating to certificates or information to be used in court or similar situations.

The registry of births, deaths and marriages are also under the Department of Justice in Western Australia, and you must be aged 16 or older to access historical records. Birth records here go as far back as over 100 years, marriage records go back over 75 years, and death records go back to more than 30 years.

Because of their confidential nature, access to newer records is restricted and will require written permission and evidence of identity for both the researcher and the owner of the records.

Victoria also has church records for baptisms, marriages and burials from as far back as 1836 which are also open to the public. There are also resources for researchers tracing family histories which include Stolen Generations and which involve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services.

In Queensland, the local government will only be able to provide information on marriages and deaths that took place in that state. That means information will not be available for people who got married or passed away interstate or outside of Australia.

Finding Adoption Papers

Particularly important for probate genealogists, access to documentation for adoption or people with unknown parentage also varies between states and may also be relevant in cases involving stepchildren.

Restrictions on access vary because adoption was legalised at different times throughout Australia. Note that some states prevent access according to the wishes of the parent or the adopted person.

In NSW, you need to get permission to access pre-adoption birth certificates which are usually given to the adopted person, the birth parent or a birth relative with inherited rights. You will also need identification documents and possibly the post-adoptive birth certificate.

Note that it is possible to add a parent to the pre-adoptive birth certificate which is contingent on DNA testing and other evidence. You may get in touch with the Post Adoption Information Unit for further information.

In Queensland, you will have to work with Adoption and Permanent Care Services as well as the local government to get permission to buy the information you need. Note that pre-adoption details  and post-adoptive certificates can’t be used for official purposes such as identification.

You will also have to work with the Adoption Information Service in Victoria which will interview a researcher wishing to access adoption records. While such records were restricted in the 1950s and ‘60s, recent developments such as adoption practices undergone by Stolen Generations have led to more recent discussion on these policies, the latest of which was in 2022.

Also note that in Victoria, it is possible to undo an adoption by applying for a Discharge of Adoption, in which case the person becomes reconnected to the birth family in the eyes of the law.

For records that are less than 99 years old, researchers can look for Victorian Child Welfare and Adoption Records. For records over 99 years old, researchers can get in touch with Public Record Office Victoria, although there aren’t many adoption records from before 1929, and those records may have incomplete information.

In South Australia, legislation regulating access to adoption information was enforced in late 2017. You can ask for adoption information if the adopted person has passed away or cannot be found or if you are a direct descendant of the adopted person.

You can also make a request if the birth parents or a relative give their consent, or have passed away or cannot be found. You will also need to provide identification.

Adoptions became legal in Western Australia in 1896, and access to identifying and non-identifying adoption information has become easier since 1994.

Genealogy researchers will have to get authorisation from Adoption Services before the Family Court of Western Australia can provide the adoption court records. You may also want to apply and pay for a birth certificate with the adopted person’s new name.

Finding Other Resources

The processes and regulations involved in looking up the resources above are much more complex than this broad overview might suggest. There are also many other resources that can be used in Genealogy Australia research which may also differ according to territory such as:

  • Information on people who have changed their names
  • DNA test results
  • Census records
  • Military records
  • Immigration records

This is why engaging the services of experts in genealogy such as the team at Worthington Clark can greatly simplify research into a person’s family history. These experts will know best when it comes to finding resources in a particular Australian state according to a person’s specific needs such as for claiming property or establishing identity.


Worthington Clark is a boutique family-owned and operated professional genealogy and asset research firm in Sydney with over 40 years of specialist experience in genealogy research for lawyers, trustees, companies, executors, and beneficiaries. Request a quote for genealogy research services today.

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