Few people who use a coat-of-arms and/or so-called family crest today have any right to do so. Armorial bearings do not belong to all persons of a given surname but belong to and identify members of one particular family who has the legal right to the coat-of-arms.

It is a popular misconception that there is a coat-of-arms for each surname and that everyone bearing that surname is entitled to use those arms. Nothing could be further from the truth. To lay claim to an existing authentic coat-of-arms by inheritance, one must be able to prove direct lineal descent from an ancestor known to have lawfully borne those arms. The applicant's place in the line of descent is also of great importance. A mere similarity in surname is totally irrelevant and even kinship, as opposed to descent, does not give one any claim to a specific coat-of-arms.

Coats-of-arms are a form of property and may rightfully be used only by the male-line descendants of the individual to whom they were first granted or allowed. Such grants were and are made by the appropriate heraldic authority.

Coats-of-arms were used by knights and the nobility. In some countries coats-of-arms were used by bishops, cities and merchants. These were granted to an individual or to the city.

Unfortunately, over the centuries, many families have simply assumed arms and/or crests belonging to other families of the same name, usually without authority and without demonstrating any relationship between the families. This is especially true in South Africa. Mere usage of a coat-of-arms, even over a long period, does not necessarily indicate a descent from the family for whom it was first granted. More often than not, there is no such connection. Even in the days when a tax was levied on the use of armorial bearings, those paying the tax by no means always had an established right to arms.

The erroneous and widespread practice of adopting the arms of a family of the same surname is to be deplored. It detracts from the basic purpose of coats-of-arms and/or crests, which is to provide hereditary symbols by which particular families may be identified.

Grants of new arms have been made to applicants, on payment of fees, since the 15th century. The practice continues to this day.

Many people like to purchase gifts that are supposedly their family coat-of-arms. There is only one problem: they are bogus! In many shopping malls, you will see vendors selling reproductions of coats-of-arms. Similar "businesses" exist on the Web.

The study of coats-of-arms is called heraldry. Those who control the issuance of arms are heralds. Typically, each country in Western Europe as well as in England, Scotland, Ireland, and South Africa, has an office of the Heralds. The Heralds are empowered to decide who is authorized to display a certain coat-of-arms. If you do not have authorization from the Heralds, you are not authorized to display any coat-of-arms. The rules are a bit different in the Netherlands and in some eastern European countries. The United States of America does not have an office of heralds, although the American College of Heraldry will register a coat-of-arms for individuals or businesses.

In South Africa, as in the British Isles, Europe and elsewhere, nobody may usurp someone else's arms as their own. Those who cannot prove their claim to ancestral arms are free to apply for the registration of new arms in their name, if they so wish. Arms so registered are protected by the full force of the law.

Application for registration of arms can be made in terms of the provision of section 7(1) of the Heraldry Act, 1962. Sections 7(5) and 7(6) of the Act further provides for the registration of arms for descendants (including adopted children).

The public should thus be wary of offers to provide them with their "family coat-of-arms" - inevitably reproduced from some heraldic article or publication, but without any proof whatsoever that the person to whom the offer is made is a direct descendant of any person who might have borne those arms, or indeed that they are even remotely related.

In terms of section 23(a) of the Heraldry Act, it is an offence in South Africa for any person to furnish a "family coat-of-arms", unless the supplier has been able to satisfy the State Herald as to the authenticity of the arms in question and is in possession of a certificate to this effect, issued by the State Herald. This provision became necessary in order to protect gullible members of the public from the activities of unscrupulous hawkers who offer “family” coats-of-arms in computer-generated or other forms.

There is no such thing as a "family coat-of-arms." A coat-of-arms is issued to one person, not to a family. After that person is deceased, his primary heir (normally the oldest son) may apply for the same coat-of-arms. Again, when he dies, his heir may apply. The rules for determining who is eligible to display a coat-of-arms are very similar to the rules for becoming King or Queen of England. However, even the proper heir cannot display the coat-of-arms until he or she has received authorization (been confirmed) by the Heralds. At any one time, only one person may rightfully display a coat-of-arms. The next time someone offers a copy of your "family's coat-of-arms," ask them for the official documentation.

If you still insist on using a coat-of-arms that does not belong to you, the following have photos:

"Die Groot Afrikaanse Familienaamboek" by C. Pama, 1983, Human and Rousseau Uitgewers - It has more than 3000 South African families listed, approximately 450 "family crests and coats-of-arms", and 350 signatures of early ancestors.

Please do not ask me to research or send you your "coat-of-arms".