Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Got a cousin what?!

I know I've blogged about this repeatedly this summer, but I'm going to once again sound like a broken record and return to discussing the Family Finder test through Family Tree DNA.  Because I am just that confident in its potential for donor conceived people.

I promised I would do a post on matches a while ago, so here it is!

FTDNA's Family Finder test can identify close and immediate relatives back approximately 5 generations.  That is, a relative that shares a common ancestor with you almost certainly in the past 200 years (versus Y-STR and mtDNA tests whose matches may be a common ancestor from 500+ or even thousands of years ago!!).  Here's a few more points about matches and relatedness:

  • It can also identify distant relatives (more than 5 generations back), but these are only speculative and should not be relied upon.  
  • Very close and immediate relationships can be confirmed/identified with 99.99% accuracy.  If a half-sibling, your bio father, grandparent, aunt/uncle, or any 1st or 2nd cousins test, you will be matched with them 100% of the time and the suggested relationship will help you to accurately identify how they are related to you.  
  • More distant close cousins (3rd) and distant cousins (4th and up) may or may not match with you.  3rd cousins will match with you 90% of the time.  That means if 100 of your 3rd cousins test 90 of them will show up as matches, but 10 of them will not.  This is simply do to random inheritance and 3rd cousins only share 0.78% of their DNA (1/16 gg-grandparents), so not every set of 3rd cousins will have inherited enough of the same bits of DNA from their common ancestor (gg-grandparent) to show up as matches.  4th cousins will only match 50% of the time, and 5th cousins and beyond even less.  So obviously the test has limits, but the chances of finding a 4th or 5th cousin who has any idea how you are related let alone who your bio father is is about as likely as finding a needle in a haystack!!
  • As I've mentioned before, if you're Generation X or Y, chances are most of your matches are at least a generation or two older than you, so if the suggested relationship is 3rd cousin it's possible you are actually 2nd cousins once removed...that is instead of both of you sharing a common gg-grandparent, it might be your match's g-grandparent and your gg-grandparent.  This is just something to keep in mind for both you and your matches.  

Once your test is completed, your results will be returned to you and you will be able to access your list of matches...any relative that shares enough DNA with you to be considered a match who has also signed their release form.  All of your matches will list a relationship range as well as the amount of shared DNA.  Close and immediate matches will also list a suggested relationship (that should only be used as a guide to establish where the connection might lie).  For some matches they might have also added surnames known in their family tree and a few might even have their family trees (GEDCOMs) available on FTDNA.

The good news is, even if you do not have many matches when you first get your results, or you do not have any close (3rd cousins or closer) matches, do not fear, as more and more people test you will get more and more matches.  This is definitely a plus of FTDNA, in that there is no subscription so you will receive new matches indefinitely.

Now ideally, matching with a very close or immediate relative is the best - duh.  In this case you will almost certainly be able to identify your bio father (unless it's a DC half-sibling, adoptee, or some other "non-paternal event").  But most likely you're going to get matches in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th cousin range.  I'm going to focus from now on on 3rd cousins since these seem to be the most common close matches that appear.  From here on out I'm also going to assume that these are paternal cousins and not maternal.  I've discussed this in the past, and still strongly suggest to have a maternal relative (sibling with a different donor, mother, aunt/uncle, grandparent) tested to help separate maternal and paternal matches.

Hypothetical situation: So you have a bunch of matches and hypothetically your top 3 matches all have a relationship range of 2nd-4th cousin with a suggested relationship of 3rd cousin.  What do you do now?  

1. The first thing you should do is look if they have surnames listed.  Are there any names in common?  If so this might show that these two (or however many) may be related to you on the same line/branch.

2. Go to the Chromosome Browser (link in left column under Illumina OmniExpress) and check off all 3 of these top matches.  Set the threshold to 5+cM.  Where are the shared segments of DNA between you and these 3 matches?  Are there any areas that have overlapping segments?  If so, this is another avenue to determine if these matches are all on the same line/branch.  Also play around with all 3 of these matches and see if there are any of these matches that have overlapping segments with any of your matches.  The main reason for this is to help your matches to narrow down how you might be related to them, if there are common matches between you.

NOTE: You may or may not have received any emails from your matches.

3. Now is the time, if you have not been contacted yet by matches, to go forward with initiating contact.  You will have your matches names and email addresses provided.  My personal suggestion for initial contact with matches is to be vague but don't lie.  Unfortunately there are some people involved in genealogy who may not feel comfortable sharing information with someone who is adopted or donor-conceived.  Luckily this seems to be a rarity, as genealogists are in the "business" of finding family!!  However, while many genealogists have come across adoptees searching, many have not had experience interacting with donor-conceived people, and as with the rest of society, there is a prevailing attitude and stigma set on us.

Here is an example of an email to send to new matches:
Dear __________,
I just received my Family Finder results and we were listed as suggested 3rd cousins.  I believe our connection must be on my paternal side.  I have very little genealogical information on my paternal family so I'd be grateful for any information you might have.
Some might assume you are adopted at this point - again, many genealogists have come into contact with adoptees.  If they think you're adopted and are not refusing to provide information you're probably safe to correct them and disclose.  As you correspond with these matches you can "come clean" about being donor conceived when it feels right.

4a. If you made it to this point positively your match responded to your email and you're on your way to getting to know your family (even if it is distant) and perhaps gain more knowledge or direction towards your bio father's identity.  You might be amazed at the incredible wealth of information you matches have, and many, even if they are unable to identify who your bio father is, are more than willing to accept you as family and help you as best they can.

4b. If your match did not respond, or refuses communication, all is not lost.  Unlike 23andMe (with which if a match doesn't respond you're up a creek without a paddle because you don't have a name or any information on your match and his/her family), FTDNA provides the name, email address, and if the match submitted ancestral surnames and/or GEDCOMs.  With this information at least you have a name and some information so you can research that person and his/her family on your own to try and gather more about their family.  A great place after a basic Google search (some people have public family trees up on the WWW) is  You can get a free trial subscription for 2-weeks, and can pay for a single month or up to a year subscription (though it's cheaper in the long-run to pay for the year subscription).  Not only are there millions of genealogical records (church, local government, family, etc), census records, newspapers, public records (very useful if you have a DOB and a location or possible surname), and more, but there are also millions of public family trees created by Ancestry members.  Since FTDNA is geared towards genealogists, many of your matches may have a family tree posted publicly on (or other websites such as, and if you can find it you can at least see the family tree (minus any living members).  This isn't going to give you your bio father's name (unless you're an older offspring and you believe he's likely deceased), but it might point you in some directions.

5. Join projects....and/or get involved.  If one of your matches has a family group, they may invite you to join.  This can either be something like a FTDNA official project, or a private group/listserv.  Even if your matches don't have information, their family members might!!  I know this to be the case just in my mother's family with regards to very recent family history - sometimes one sibling or one branch of the family has some bit of knowledge that was for some unknown reason never passed on to the others.  So it's possible that someone else might just have a little golden nugget of information.

6. And last but not least, remember as you start this journey...these matches are your family.  Worst case scenario is you will not gain any further information about your bio father from this test.  But while that technically can happen, do not pass over one of the most important aspects of this test.  You have found your family.  They may not be your bio father, or even know your bio father, but they are your kin.  Savor the opportunity to get to know your bio father's family and learn more about yourself in the process.


Anonymous said...

Hey Lindsay, I signed up for FTDNA a few years ago and did the 67-marker match - how is this different than that? I assume it's better/more advanced? Is it worth me plunking down more cash?

damianhadams said...

Hi Anonymous
the 67 marker is for Y-DNA only and as such you will only be able to match with other men.
The FamilyFinder looks at your other DNA (your autosomes) and analyzes thousands and thousands of markers not just 67. So as such you could also receive matches with women as well.
For guys both tests are the way to go.
I would suggest plunking down the extra cash for this test if you can afford it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Lindsay, Asya here (an adoptee.)

I recently tested with FTDNA, and received 76 autosomal matches, and 11 mtDNA matches. I sent off letters to all of my matches this Weekend, and so far (writing this on Tuesday, just several days since sending), and have received back 28 responses! 27 were positive, and only one said essentially, 'thanks, but no thanks' ( he said he was only doing the testing for 'historical purposes' - but he was polite about it.

Of my matches who wrote back so far, I've had about 5-6 other adoptees, and one donor conceived. I actually just wrote back to him this morning, and recommended your blog! :)

Anonymous said...

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