Descendancy Research | 4 Tips for Finding Living Relatives

Jessica Rea

Share with a friend: 

Descendancy research is just as important as traditional genealogy when it comes to DNA. Jessica provides 4 tips for finding living relatives.

Doing DNA research often feels a lot like gambling. Sometimes we get lucky and the shared matches we need to solve our mysteries just appear in our match lists when we begin our research, almost as if by magic. Sometimes though, we roll snake eyes and it seems like nobody matches us on the lines we need. 

Finding living relatives

This is when we have to put in the hard work and find candidates to target test. If you’re looking for an unknown grandparent, finding people to target test might be easy – you probably already know your first cousins. But what if you’re looking for 2nd, 3rd, or even 4th great grandparents? I don’t know about you, but I sure don’t know any of my 4th cousins personally!

When this happens, we have to find out who those 3rd or 4th cousins are who might help us solve our mystery. We have to, you guessed it, do genealogy. Specifically, we have to do a type of genealogy called descendancy research, where we take the family line we are interested in all the way down to the present, trying to identify every single living relative that we can. 

One of my own DNA mysteries is the identity of the parents of my 3rd great-grandfather Jasper. Following The Plan (which you’ll find laid out in Your DNA Guide–the Book and the DNA Skills Workshop) it turned out that I needed to do a lot of descendancy research. Here are my favorite techniques for doing genealogy forwards instead of backwards, or finding living relatives.

1. Birth, marriage, and death indexes

I’m lucky that in the U.S. state I’m researching in, there are birth, marriage and death indexes available. If these exist for your state, they are invaluable for finding relationships past the census years that are publicly available. I use the marriage index to find the surname of the spouse, then use that data in the birth index to find the names of their children. This usually brings me up to living people, but I also check the death index to make sure. 

2. Newspapers

Don’t worry if you don’t have modern vital record indexes in your state, there are plenty of other options. My all-time favorite resource is newspapers, and the best database I have found is I love that they provide hints in Ancestry and you can clip specific sections and attach them to the person of interest in your tree. Obituaries are a great resource in newspapers, because they typically provide a list of relatives, both surviving and deceased, often with the relationships already identified for you.

And, don’t think that newspapers can only be used for obituaries! Many papers provide a list of recent marriage licenses taken out in the city or county; smaller local papers may even have detailed writeups about the wedding, including family members and members of the bridal party. Some papers also have lists of recent births and divorces. I find this to be especially likely in the newspaper for the county seat.

3. Public record indexes

Another resource I like to use is public record indexes. I will search for someone I have identified in the index, find their address, and then search for other people at that address with the same surname. This is helpful to find spouses and children.

People finder websites, like Been Verified or White can be used similarly. White Pages has a list of “Relatives and Associates” that can be great sources for finding children– it even gives estimates of their ages. Just take these lists with a grain of salt because they can include errors. 

I also love using White Pages and other people finder sites when I need to find distant relatives to target test. I have sent letters to most recent addresses or called the landline listed. Sometimes I don’t hear back or the line has been disconnected, but other times I have great conversations with distant cousins who have never heard of me before.

Search results for "John Smith" in New York, NY on search results for “John Smith” in New York, NY.

4. Facebook

One of my sneakier ways of identifying living relatives is by using Facebook. I do a search for someone on Facebook, and then look through their Facebook friends for related surnames to make sure I’ve found the correct person. Many people will list relatives in their About Me section. A lot of people will also post information about their families either in their photos or their posts. But keep in mind: you should make your Facebook private if you don’t want someone to be able to find all this information about you! 

Using these techniques, I have had great success bringing my family tree down to the present. It has been so helpful in my search for relatives. On the one hand, I have a list of options to target test. Also, and probably more importantly, when I have interesting matches in my DNA results that don’t have trees or have limited trees, I can search their name or their parents’ names in my tree. I often find them, so then I know exactly how they are related to me and can use them as a Best Known Match! 

For more in-depth help with Finding Living Relatives, check out our Finding Living Relatives Workshop running in January 2024. Best of luck in finding your living relatives!

Not sure what to say once you’ve found a living relative? Check out our free guide to contacting your DNA matches!

Get the FREE Guide

Get More DNA Inspiration

Our free monthly newsletter delivers more great articles right to you.


  1. Kim N

    Great ideas! I have used a few of these myself. I was wondering though, if you have any tips on descendancy research in another country, particularly Sweden or Norway. I am trying to trace forward to living relatives in those countries and can only seem to get so far. Thanks!

    • Diahan Southard

      We don’t currently have any resources for that, but we will keep that in mind for future blog posts!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Send this to a friend