Getting Started in an Unknown Parentage Search

This post has been updated.

DNA has great power to connect adoptees and others with unknown parentage to their birth families. And while there are occasional reports of someone taking a genealogical DNA test and being matched immediately to a birth parent — face it — that’s probably not going to happen. More commonly, a search for biological family takes time, money, knowledge, patience, and a lot of work. If you are an adult who is searching, my goal is to teach you how to minimize those investments. This post is meant only to get you started with testing; it does not describe what to do with your DNA results once you have them.

 

DNA Testing Strategy

Your DNA testing strategy will depend on how much you can afford and how quickly you want to find your birth family. I know, the answer is probably “As little as possible … and NOW!” Your strategy must also consider how much effort you are willing to invest personally in both learning how to use DNA results and good old sweat equity. My advice here will help you balance the trade-offs in cost and time, make the most of your DNA results when they come in, and position you to seek help from others if you need or want it.

First, a bit about the types of DNA tests and the companies that offer them. The most important tests for unknown parentage searches examine autosomal DNA (abbreviated atDNA) and Y chromosome DNA (Y-DNA or yDNA). Both kinds of tests will “match” you to people who share DNA with you, meaning that they are related somehow. Everyone has atDNA, and we inherit it from both parents. That means it can help find relatives on both your mother’s and your father’s side. Y-DNA, on the other hand, is what makes a man male; only men can do this kind of test, because women don’t have Y-DNA, pretty much by definition. For men, the test might lead you to your birth father’s surname, as surnames tend to be inherited in the same way as Y-DNA (father-to-son).

There are four big players in the genealogical testing market: AncestryDNA, 23andMeMyHeritage, and Family Tree DNA (a.k.a. FTDNA). There are also some new kids on the block, like Living DNA. Each company has its own database of people who have taken the test and who can be matched to you if they are related. If you’re searching, the main thing you want is to find close relatives — the closer the better — and that’s more likely to happen with a company that’s tested millions of people than with one that’s only tested a few thousand. For that reason, my recommendations are based heavily on the sizes of the respective databases.

 

When Money Is No Object (Total Cost: US$1000 or more)

If you can afford to throw out all the stops and don’t have the time or energy to learn how to use the various databases, build hypothetical trees, and interpret the data, consider hiring a professional to do the heavy lifting. I offer these services, as do other reputable searchers. A professional can also advise you on which tests are most appropriate for your particular situation. (See the next section for an overview.) There is no formal accrediting body for this type of work, so be sure to ask for references and check the reputation of whomever you hire. Costs will include the DNA tests themselves as well as the hours your researcher invests in your case, and will vary by how complicated your search is.

 

D-I-Y (Total Cost: US$500 or More)

If you can afford multiple tests but want to conduct your own search, do the following.  Bear in mind that there is a steep learning curve and the whole endeavor may take hundreds of hours of labor over months or years. Test prices listed here were accurate in May 2017; for current pricing, click here.

  • Purchase the atDNA test from AncestryDNA (US$99 plus shipping). You do not need to subscribe to Ancestry.com yet; a free membership is fine.
  • Purchase the atDNA test from 23andMe (US$99 for ancestry only, $199 for ancestry + health reports; plus shipping).
  • Optional: Purchase the the atDNA “Family Finder” test from Family Tree DNA (US$89 plus shipping).
  • If you are male, purchase the Y-37 test from Family Tree DNA (US$169 plus shipping).
  • Join an online support group for unknown parentage searches. Facebook has some great ones, including DNA Detectives (for help with DNA-based searches), Search Squad (for non-DNA assistance), DNA for the Donor Conceived, and Genetic Genealogy Tips & Techniques (for general advice). Read the success stories, ask questions, and learn everything you can in anticipation of your own results.
  • Buy The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy by Blaine Bettinger (US$20).
  • If you were adopted, request your adoption file or non-identifying information (see below) from the state in which your adoption took place (cost varies).
  • If you know one of your biological parents, ask them to take the AncestryDNA and 23andMe tests, too. Their results will help you sort your maternal matches from your paternal ones (US$198–298 plus shipping for the two tests).
  • Log into your free Ancestry.com account and start building a tree with yourself as the starting person. Name the tree something like “<Your Name> Research Tree”, so that if you seek help from someone else down the line, they’ll easily be able to tell whose tree it is and its purpose. Enter what you know for your birth parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. Even without names (call them e.g.,  “mother”, “father”, “maternal aunt”), you can enter birth years, physical descriptions, education or career facts, and any other details in the nonID or shared by your known parent. I recommend scanning in the nonID paperwork or any notes you have taken and uploading it to the research tree so it’s easy to find later.
  • In your research tree, go to Tree Settings (click on the tree name), then Privacy Settings, and make sure it is set to “Private Tree”. Check the box to “Also prevent your tree from being found in searches.” You can change these privacy settings once you have identified your birth parents. For now, keep it on the QT.
  • When your AncestryDNA results arrive, sign up for a subscription at Ancestry.com (2-week free trial, then US$99 for 6 months or US$189 for a year for U.S. records).
  • Download your raw DNA data from AncestryDNA (DNA: Settings: Download Raw DNA Data) and consider uploading it to the following sites: GEDmatch, Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage, and DNA.Land. I say “consider” because you should read and understand the Terms of Service at each site before you transfer into its database. (Notably, we learned in April 2018 that U.S. law enforcement is using GEDmatch for criminal investigations, raising concerns about government overreach.) Transferring into other databases increases your chances of finding close matches who might be the key to your search. All of the transfers are free, although GEDmatch and Family Tree DNA offer additional features for a small charge ($10/month at GEDmatch, one-time fee of $19 at Family Tree DNA).
  • If you get stuck, consider a phone consultation with a professional searcher to get you back on track (US$50–100).

 

Searching on a Shoestring (Total Cost: US$150 or more)

If the thought of $500 makes your heart sink, you can triage by focusing on the essentials first and adding additional tests and subscriptions only when your search stalls. This strategy may take longer to find your biological family, but it may save you money and lets you spread the costs out over time.

  • Purchase the atDNA test from AncestryDNA when it’s on sale. The best times in the US are around National DNA Day (April 25), Mother’s Day (mid May), Father’s Day (mid June), and Thanksgiving (late November). You can also try the discount code FREESHIPDNA, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. (As low as US$69 plus shipping).
  • Join an online support group dedicated to unknown parentage searches. (See above.)
  • Check out The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy, by Blaine Bettinger, from your local library and read it.
  • If you were adopted, request your adoption file or non-identifying information (see below) from the state in which your adoption took place (cost varies).
  • Log into your free Ancestry.com account and start building a tree with yourself as the starting person. (See above.)
  • When your DNA results arrive, download your raw DNA data from AncestryDNA (DNA: Settings: Download Raw DNA Data) and consider transferring it to the following sites: GEDmatch, Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage, and DNA.Land (see above).
  • Clear your schedule.  Sign up for the 2-week free trial subscription at Ancestry.com and spend all of your spare time copying the trees of your closest matches into your research tree and using the records at Ancestry.com to “grow” their ancestral lines back to the year 1800, if you can. Cancel the trial the day before the 2 weeks are up to avoid charges.
  • When the free trial ends, call Ancestry.com at 1-800-262-3787 and ask for the Insights membership for US$49/year. An Insights subscription will let you see the public member trees of your DNA matches but does not give you access to records like censuses, the Social Security database, etc. It is only available over the phone. (Edited to add: If the customer service agent says the Insights membership is not available, ask to speak to a manager.)
  • Consider using your local public library or Family History Center for free access to Ancestry.com’s resources. FamilySearch is also a great resource.
  • Consider buying the 23andMe test, a Y-37 test from Family Tree DNA (only if you’re male), or a 6-month subscription to Ancestry.com only as needed.
  • If you get stuck, consider a phone consultation with a professional searcher to get you back on track (US$50–100).

 

What Not to Do

There is no need to do a mitochondrial (mtDNA) test. They are rarely useful for an unknown parentage search.

 

Traditional Records

DNA is a powerful tool, but it’s not the only one in our toolbox. Here are some steps to pursue while you’re waiting for your DNA test to arrive and for the results to be processed.

First, if you were adopted, request information about your adoption from the state or agency that handled it. Some U.S. states (AL, AK, CO, CT, DE, HI, IL, KS, ME, MA, MO, MT, NH, NJ, OH, OK, OR, RI, TN, VT, WA) now provide identifying information about birth parents, including original birth certificates, in most cases. Other states will send you a summary of information provided by your birth mother that does not identify her (a.k.a., non-identifying information or “nonID”) but can provide valuable clues that will help in your search.

Next, register in and search the online adoption registries. Registries are online databases that attempt to match adoptees with biological family members who are searching for them. A few of them are listed below, alphabetically. You should also do an internet search for “adoption registry” plus the state or country in which your adoption took place to find registries specific to those locations.

You can find more resources for adoptees at DNAadoption.com.

 

Summary

The information here should get you started in a DNA-based search for biological family at a level of investment that fits your needs.

Good luck!

 

  • The following edits and updates to this post have been made:
    17 Sep 2017—added information on purchasing the Ancestry Insights subscription
  • 18 Feb 2018—included MyHeritage among the main companies and added a link to current test prices for all companies
  • 4 May 2018—noted that U.S. law enforcement is using GEDmatch for criminal investigations

 

14 thoughts on “Getting Started in an Unknown Parentage Search”

  1. For D-I-Y and particularly Shoestring budgets, you are doing your readers a disservice by not mentioning the resource DNAAdoption.com. Between the plethora of information and links available on the site, the dedicated chat group where requests don’t get lost in a Facebook scroll, and the low-cost, self-paced, online DNA educational classes, this site offers it all.

  2. I’m in Canada. My mother was conceived during WW2 in Vancouver on a weekend ship layover from Ireland. My grandmother (who’s passed) didn’t remember his name. My grandfather adopted mom 3 years later. we’re in the process of requesting original birth registration (certificate) and adoption (by her non-bio grandfather) but we doubt her mother listed a name.

    Mom has also done Ancestry DNA and we’ve found differing matches (2nd cousins) on her mother’s side and presumably father’s but without a name as a reference point what do you do? The 2nd cousins are mostly in North America(Canada and US) and had migrated to here at around or before the time of (ahem) conception but that seems kinda unlikely given the nature of the “trist”, if you will.

    I suspect the story of the “layover” was just that a story. So then, still without a name…where do you go from there. I uploaded raw data to GEDmatch. Still don’t understand what i’m seeing. Should I set up anther test? Or upload to FamilyHistory etc?

    1. First, does your mother have a maternal half sibling who would be willing to test. That would help to separate her maternal matches from her paternal ones. You can use the “Shared Matches” tool to find clusters that also match one another. The goal is to find the couple from whom those matches and your mother all descend. Then you trace the line forward toward the present hoping to find someone who was in the right place at the right time.

      1. Yeah, i have a test kit ready for a half sister. Without having the half sis tested yet, i have some matches that seem different from a cousin of my mom’s so it’ll be interesting to see if i’m right about them!

        Thanks for getting back to me! 🙂

  3. My mom just had her DNA tested on Ancestry. She was conceived in San Francisco very early 1973. Her mother lived around Haight Ashbury and came home (Michigan) to have my mother. Her mother died when my mother was 16 and my mother has no other living family that she knows of. The DNA test came up with 2 possible 1st-2nd cousins that have logged in but not replied to any messages. So we’ve reached out to the 4th cousins. I know she will be related to one of the 3rd set of great grandparents. But how do we go about figuring this out? When you have nothing to go on, it seems almost impossible. Any tips to push us in the right direction will be greatly appreciated!

    1. First, have you built a tree for her mother’s mother’s side, to help you rule out her maternal matches? Once you’re sure you’ve identified some paternal matches (especially in the 1-2C range), check to see if they have trees, google their names/aliases, and also look at their shared matches to find clusters of people who are all related to one another. Also, if you haven’t already, consider transferring her raw AncestryDNA data to MyHeritage, Family Tree DNA (links in the post). If it’s affordable, also test her with 23andMe (on sale now for Father’s Day: http://thednageek.com/dna-tests/). It’s work, but with matches that close, it should be solvable.

  4. Thanks for the helpful information!! I just uploaded my data to GEDmatch. My story-I did my ancestry DNA last year and find out my dad was not my bio dad and that i am basically half European (mother is black, so that half comes from Africa) If I don’t have a name and Ancestry closest DNA relative from the European side is a 4th cousin, can i narrow down people it may be? Also, will having the membership allow me to search those cousins, help me? Should i get the World membership because i am 22% Scandinavian? Any help is greatly appreciated!!

    1. First, you may want to copy your DNA data file from your AncestryDNA account into the databases of Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage, Living DNA, and GEDmatch. The reason to do this is to find other DNA cousins who may not have tested at AncestryDNA. Instructions are here:
      http://thednageek.com/how-to-transfer-your-ancestrydna-test-to-other-databases/

      Second, bear in mind that most African Americans are not 100% African; they’ll have some European ancestry, as well. If you can test your mother at AncestryDNA, you can use her results to filter out your maternal matches so you can focus on the paternal ones.

      Finally, a membership makes searching a *lot* easier, but you don’t need the World level, at least not yet. Start with the “U.S. Discovery” level and only upgrade if you’re finding DNA matches in the 4th cousin category or closer whose families immigrated in the mid-1800s or more recently.

  5. Hello,
    I am trying to find my brother’s biological father. My parents have taken the test as I, my sister, our children, uncles, 1st cousins, 2nd cousins; you name it they have taken it. As suspected, my brother does not share the same father as my sister and I. My mother refuses to give any information at all. She will take it to her grave which is probably not far away. In any case, the AncestryDNA test just confirmed it. After weeding out the DNA shared matches with my mom’s side, I have another great list of folks on his father’s side. I was able to figure out the maternal side of his father, but the paternal side is eluding me. He has seven matches that all share with him and each other. Match A) 320/19 B)254/12 C) 179/9 D) 116/7 E) 97/4 F) 93/6 and G) 27.5/2 (first number is centimorgans and other number is DNA segments). Now the B match I was able to get access to her DNA matches. This is how she fares with the numbers to each leaving B untouched since that is the amount her and my brother share together. A)258/16 B)254/12 C)145/8 D)96/3 E) 112/4 F) 36/2 and G) 140/7. I have mirror trees that I was able to compose for E and D. As for the others, one is in Nepal and over six months after repeated messages through Ancestry and Facebook has not made contact. Two were adopted and know nothing and are in the same boat as my brother with the mothers and one the highest for my brother A only has their name and no other identifying information to find them on social media. The mirror trees have unlocked some of the mystery. I know from E my brother shares Great Grandparents since I was able to find quite a few others sharing them but in the 4th cousins range. As for D, her tree does not share this pair, but a different pair come up 2x great grandparents with others matching, as well. It seems that Caddo, LA is the common element within these two trees at some point.

    The mother of his father (or his grandmother) is a solid trace and I have been able to complete her line on his tree with confidence. However, “She” is one of two sisters. I am in contact with one of the sisters daughters, but she has stopped talking to me (oops may have ruffled some long ago feathers). But I am hopeful she will take an ancestryDNA test to rule out her mother who is alive but in her late 80’s or 90’s. The other sister died long ago and has two daughters but I have not gotten their names.

    Finally my question, how can I use the two mirror trees to narrow this down further? What am I missing in terms of searching? Do you need more info? Anything is of help here. Thank you…Christine Gutfeld

    1. Hi Christine, it sounds like you’re on the right track with your research and are poised to help out more than just your brother. If you’re keen to do the work on your own with occasional pointers, I recommend the Facebook groups “DNA Detectives” and “Genetic Genealogy Tips & Techniques”. If you want to hire someone to help you, I’m afraid I can’t take on any new cases for another month or two, but I can either add you to my waiting list or refer to someone who can start working with you sooner. Feel free to email me at theDNAgeek(at)gmail.com.

  6. I am trying to help my niece locate her father. She has completed dna testing and found 2 2nd cousins and reach out to them through the website and social media but had not heard back. Can you please advise what would be a good next plan?

    1. Use the Shared Matches/ICW feature to find connections among the matches and build trees for them. When she first reaches out, it’s best not to say she’s looking for an unknown father, at least not in the first message. Sometimes that scares matches off.

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