How to Handle Surprises in Your DNA

How to Handle Surprises in Your DNA

DNA testing is a powerful new tool for genealogists. And just like any other genealogical record, it's capable of revealing secrets. For example, the results of a DNA test can reveal relationships that were either long-forgotten, or were long-held family secrets. Knowing this, what should you do when you...

DNA testing is a powerful new tool for genealogists. And just like any other genealogical record, it’s capable of revealing secrets.

For example, the results of a DNA test can reveal relationships that were either long-forgotten, or were long-held family secrets. Knowing this, what should you do when you discover a secret in your family?

Genetic genealogy expert and author of the new book The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy Blaine Bettinger shares some tips for handling surprises in your DNA findings:

You can follow a few important steps before testing that will help prepare you and the test-taker for potential surprises:

  1. Explain to prospective test-takers that you may discover family secrets and unknown relationships through a DNA test. The test-taker can then make an informed decision about whether or not to test, and will be better prepared for possible outcomes.
  2. You can also ask the test-taker—again, before testing—whether he or she would even like to know any surprises or unexpected findings that are uncovered. Some family members may decide that they’d rather not know, and that decision will guide how you respond to any discovery you make.

And what should you do if you find something unexpected in your research? If you uncover an unknown relationship or family secret, break the discovery to the affected relatives slowly and carefully. Are you absolutely certain about your conclusion, or is there room for other interpretations? What can you do to confirm the result before sharing information that might not be correct?

Once you’re sure you’ve discovered an unknown relationship or family secret, you must then decide what to do with that information. Even if the relationship you’ve found is hundreds of years old, it will likely have an impact on living individuals and thus must be considered carefully. If the family member involved has indicated that she wants to know about any uncovered surprises, you can thoughtfully and gently share the new information with her, keeping the emotional impact of the discovery in mind. If the family member has indicated that he’d rather not know, you have a responsibility not to share that information with him. For thousands of people, the discovery of family secrets is an inevitable part of genetic genealogy—but that doesn’t mean those secrets should always be divulged.

Learn more about the ethics of DNA testing—as well as the Genetic Genealogy Standards that guide ethical DNA testing and research—in The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy, available in both print and e-book versions at Family Tree Shop.

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  1. Some of us are adoptees attempting to find out either where we came from our possibly if there are siblings, half siblings, parents, uncles, aunts, etc that are out there. Growing up not knowing anything my DNA test has shed a gigantic spotlight on many things that I only dreamed about as a child. Now to convince a few other people to take a test to help me prove my research…The search for self is neverending…

  2. Knowing that my maternal side hailed from England&Wales and my paternal side was all German,I was surprised to find out I was also 27% Irish,20% Scandinavian(Sweden,Norway&Denmark) and 10% Italian/Greek.

  3. I read this post with great interest. Earlier this year I got my DNA results and low and behold there pops up a heretofore unknown 1/2 brother. Obviously the result of a NPE way back in the early 1930s. I sent numerous Ancestry messages to the administrator of the sample all with no response. Standard research allowed me to eventually identify this 1/2 brother and I sent him a rather long letter outlining all the evidence that indicated our relationship. He never replied and eventually I called him…not good! I was told to never contact him again and if I did he would "prosecute me for evasion of his privacy and defaming his parents." I don’t think this is covered in any book! The mystery is that he tested…and one has to assume there may be results that sometime surprise. It is sad that I have this 1/2 brother in his mid 80s…with no other family (no wife or kids…but he choose to ignore the science that says he has me and two 1/2 sisters alive. Part of me wants to adhere to his wishes….while part of me wants to connect. Do you know how hard it is to sit by and not want to reach out again? What say you Mr. Bettinger?

  4. After my Mom and I took DNA tests, I was able to confirm what I had come to suspect after 10-plus years of research — that my paternal grandfather (b. 1912) was adopted or a foster child. (He never talked about it if he knew.) Now if only I could figure out his family line and ultimately his bio parents! Even with my Mom’s many DNA matches it’s not easy when you’re looking back 100-plus years. I was also able to put to rest a long held family myth — that I was switched at birth. My grandmother started that the day I was brought home from the hospital — she told my Mom, "They gave you the wrong baby." DNA test proved my mother and father are my bio parents without a doubt. I wish good luck to all you adoptees!