How to Use DNA to Find Your Birth Family

Part 1: The DNA Results Are in! Now What?

You spit in the tube and waited impatiently for the results. Now they’re in, and you have no idea what to do with them. All those matches, all those unfamiliar names–making sense of them may seem like an impossible task, but it’s not, I promise.

The Initial Assessment:

Take a look at your ethnicity estimates:

This part mostly pertains to people searching for only one bio parent, usually a bio father. Are you aware of the ethnicity of your known parent? Are there any surprises there? For example, my mother’s mother was Irish and English. My mother had always been told her biological father was an Irish dockworker, so we expected her results to show she was 75% Irish. Well, when the results came back as 50% Italian, everything we thought we knew went out the window, but it did give us some important information that helped make sorting her DNA matches a little easier.

Look at the Number of Fourth Cousin and Closer Matches You Have:

How many fourth cousin and closer matches do you have? What can you learn from this number? In my experience, as a rough guide, a person that comes from a family with deep roots in a country is going to have around 500+ matches. A person with turn of the century immigrant ancestry will have around 200 matches. For a person who has very recent immigrant ancestors, that number is going to be even lower. The lowest number of fourth cousin and closer matches that I’ve personally dealt with was 70. The woman’s biological father was first generation American; her biological mother’s ancestors were turn of the century immigrants from various countries.

Remember, these numbers are just a guide. If your numbers are low, try not to worry. I personally find fourth cousin matches and distant cousin matches to be very useful.

Using Your AncestryDNA Matches to Locate Bio Family:

First, and most importantly, before you do anything else, you must take screenshots of your closest matches. I consider a close match anyone above a third cousin. Take screenshots of their names, of shared centimorgans, of any trees they may have, and even your shared matches. Finding a close match they can’t place may spook a person into making everything private—you do not want this to happen without having saved as much information as you can. I cannot stress this enough, Take. Screenshots. Immediately.

Now take a look at your matches—just a look! Do not start sending messages until you’ve assessed all of your matches.

If you find a close family match like a parent, sibling, aunt/uncle, niece or nephew, and they have trees, congratulations, you’ve struck gold! Again, make sure you’ve taken screenshots of everything! These are the matches most likely to go private.

If you don’t have any close family matches, now’s the time to take a quick inventory. Are your closest matches second cousins? How many third cousins do you have? How many have trees? Some matches may appear not to have a tree when they actually do. Make sure to click on your match’s name to see if they have a tree listed on their DNA profile page.

Next, I like to open all the trees above fourth cousin and quickly scan for common names or locations. If you recognize any of the names as belonging to your known biological parent’s side, make a note.

After doing my initial assessment, I download the raw DNA data and begin uploading it to Gedmatch, MyHeritage, and FTDNA. While I wait for those results to populate, I begin the process of sorting family lines.

Part 2: Sorting Family Lines