We write wills to provide for our loved ones after we die and to ensure that precious family heirlooms go to the people who will most value them. You may have designated a beneficiary for your family photo albums or genealogy papers and files. But have you thought about what will happen to your DNA test results?
DNA tests are not tangible, so they’re easy to overlook. You can put the family Bible in the hands of a grandchild, pull them close, and say “This is our legacy and I want you to have it when I’m gone”; you can’t do that with DNA. Sure, you could hand over a flash drive with the raw data, but that’s not where the greatest value of a genealogical DNA test lies. The value is in the matching database (or databases) where you originally tested and in the physical sample that’s stored in a lab freezer somewhere.
At all of the main DNA testing sites, your results will remain in the database after you’re gone (unless you act to remove them). That means your DNA relatives will be able to see that you share DNA with them, but they won’t be able to contact anyone to exchange information unless you bequeath your account to someone willing to carry on your work. I’ve come across many deceased matches over the years whose pedigree information would have been invaluable to my research or to one of my clients, if only I could access it.
Even if no one in your close family wants to assume the role of family genealogist, you can ensure that your endeavors are not wasted by linking a family tree to your DNA results and making it publicly visible. That way, at least your DNA matches will be able to incorporate you and your research into the lineages you share with them.
Designate a Beneficiary
Family Tree DNA allows their customers to designate a beneficiary. After your death, the designated person can contact FTDNA to gain control of your account and the right to order additional tests on your stored DNA. Even if you do not designate someone within the FTDNA system, your heirs can contact them with “confirming information” (your name, mailing address, and email address), and FTDNA may, at FTDNA’s discretion, arrange for them to have access. However, your beneficiary will have to know about the arrangement, and if you manage multiple accounts at FTDNA (for multiple people), they will each have to be dealt with separately.
Neither AncestryDNA, 23andMe, nor MyHeritage has a formal beneficiary program. To pass on access to your test results, you would simply give your login credentials to your heir(s). The same advice applies to third-party tools like GEDmatch or DNAgedcom. (You could do this at FTDNA, as well, without your heir having to go through their beneficiary program.)
Genealogy author and blogger Blaine Bettinger has made available a “Designation of Beneficiary” form that can be filled out with DNA account information, notarized, and included in your estate paperwork. The image below is shared with his permission. You can obtain a word-processor version by joining the Facebook group Genetic Genealogy Tips & Techniques. Look for it in the Files section of that group.
Because online passwords should be changed regularly, you will want to keep an updated list available for your heir, or potentially look into these reviews for password managers that you’re able to give to your relatives. Another option is to link all of your genealogy accounts to a single email address that is dedicated to genealogy and to give your beneficiary access to that email address. That way, your passwords can be reset after your death if necessary, but your personal correspondence unrelated to genealogy remains private.
None of this advice is meant to minimize the importance of private digital data, including gedcoms of your family tree, notes about the research status of each DNA test, raw DNA data (with files renamed as necessary to identify whose results they are), and stand-alone programs like Genome Mate Pro. These, too, should be made available to your heirs, either on your personal computer, on a flash drive or DVD, or in cloud-based storage. Ideally, the files will be available in multiple storage formats to ensure that your heirs can access them. (Anyone remember Zip disks?)
Long Term Legacy
What will happen to our test results when there’s no one to inherit them? You may be confronting this problem already, if no one else in the family is interested in genetic genealogy. Even with someone to carry the torch now, what happens when that person is gone?
If you have done yDNA or mtDNA testing at Family Tree DNA, joining a group project there may be a solution, as there is always likely to be someone willing to administer the project, especially if the project has many members. However, the autosomal DNA projects are hidden, and tree-based tools for them are lacking. And there is currently no such option at AncestryDNA, 23andMe, and MyHeritage.
Ultimately, I hope that genealogy societies will start accepting and curating DNA kits for specific geographical regions, cultural groups, or surnames. The testing companies should also be encouraged to provide collaborative tools to ensure the long-term utility of our data for those of us who want it.