April 2012 Toolkit: Tools for Finding Living Relatives

By Thomas MacEntee Premium

By definition, genealogists search for dead people—so the notion of looking for living relatives might seem counterintuitive. But tracing your family tree forward is a great way to enhance your genealogy experience. Because records about living people often are subject to privacy restrictions that don’t affect your ancestors’ documents, “reverse genealogy” will introduce you to new resources, sharpen your problem-solving skills and—perhaps best of all—allow you to connect with family members you never knew you had. Let’s look at five top tools for identifying and locating living relatives.

1. Family tree databases

Although most online family trees don’t display information about living people, contacting the owner of a tree containing your ancestors can pay off—the submitter may be willing to share family history information and even photos with you. Most pedigree databases keep tree owners’ email addresses hidden, but they provide a way to communicate through the website: When you locate an ancestor in Ancestry.com Public Trees, for example, you can contact the tree owner through Ancestry.com’s message system. Other family tree sites to check out include MyHeritage and WikiTree.

2. Newspapers

Another good tool for identifying potential living relatives is the newspaper. Articles—obituaries in particular—often mention relatives or surviving kin. Subscription site GenealogyBank offers more than 5,800 historical newspapers, as well as a collection of modern obituaries from 1977 to present. That’s just one example of the many searchable online collections of digitized newspapers for you to explore: For links to collections by state, stop by Online Historical Newspapers. Listings give the county and time period covered.

3. People-search engines

If you know who you’re looking for and have solid information about him, start with people-search engines. These sites cull vast amounts of data from public records and offer dynamic search capabilities. Using PeopleSmart, for instance, you can search on name, work information, phone number, email address and other fields. The site also offers an On-Site County Court Records Search where someone will pull a specific record for you—handy when you can’t travel to the courthouse. Try ZabaSearch and PeopleWise, too.

4. Court records

Many types of court cases, including probate, bankruptcy and even traffic violations, can help you locate a person. The challenge: No single website offers a comprehensive way of searching records, and not every state or county provides online access to case information. Begin by determining the jurisdiction where the person lives (usually a county), then search Google for that location name plus the term court files or docket. If the local court clerk offers an online record search, the website should pop up in your results. At the very least, you’ll find out how to contact that office so you can ask about records access.

5. Social media

With almost 1 billion users, Facebook and other social media tools allow you to make immediate contact with a living relative. Also consider using LinkedIn and similar business networking sites.

You can learn more tools and strategies for tracking living kin in my on-demand webinar They’re Alive! and the Family Tree University online course Reverse Genealogy.

Tips for Making Contact

You’ve tracked down your fourth cousin twice removed Orville Orwig—now what? Reaching out to kin who don’t know you isn’t always easy. In this age of phone and email scams, you might be greeted with suspicion rather than enthusiasm. Follow the suggestions below to increase your chances of success. Do, however, be prepared for hesitancy or outright rejection. Many people have their own reasons for not being in contact with their immediate or extended families. Don’t let this keep you from reaching out to other relatives in the future.

Telephone: When cold calling, don’t get mistaken for a telemarketer. Convey your possible relationship in the first 10 seconds, and show you’re legitimate by dropping the name of another common relative (especially one you know personally): “Hello, my name is Dorothy Gale, and my Auntie Em gave me your number. I’m working on the family tree and I think we might be related.”

Email: Make your subject line specific, as in “Possible Hatfield Family Connection” or “Are You Related To My McCoy Family?” Avoid red flag words in your subject line that might get the message caught in a spam filter (for example, “buy”). In the body of the email, be clear and concise—you want to ensure the recipient understands how you’re related and why you’re looking to connect.

Letter: This is the preferred method for many because it allows the recipient to decide how, when and if to respond. In your letter, state who you are and show how you’re related to the person you’re contacting (enclose a family tree chart if possible). Be sure to provide your telephone and email address—inserting a self-addressed stamped envelope for a response is also a nice touch.

Tip: Want a meaningful way to improve your research skills while supporting worthwhile volunteer organizations? Contribute your efforts to Unclaimed Persons, a group that assists city and county medical examiner’s offices in locating next of kin, or Families for Forgotten Heroes, which reunites the unclaimed remains of veterans with their families.
Tip: Be respectful of your living relatives’ privacy when sharing what you uncover—especially in posting on blogs and social media. Just because information is public record doesn’t mean you should publish it. Always evaluate your sources and verify facts before posting.

From the March/April 2012 Family Tree Magazine