DNA testing for a relative who is dying or is recently deceased is possible. It is one final way to learn more about their heritage. Here’s how to do it.
A few years ago, as a friend’s grandfather lay dying, she asked whether it was too late to do a DNA test for him. She had spent years researching his family history and hadn’t been able to trace his relatives outside the United States. She had meant to do a DNA test in the hopes it would reveal more about his ethnic heritage. But there was no time to order a DNA test and have it shipped. What were her options?
Urgent DNA Tests for a Dying Relative
Immediately I reached out to Diahan Southard, who gave me these instructions for my friend:
- Be sure you have appropriate consent (see below).
- Purchase an Identigene DNA paternity test collection kit from the nearest drugstore.
- Follow Identigene’s instructions carefully to collect a viable DNA sample.
- Contact Family Tree DNA (FTDNA). Alert them to the situation, and purchase the FTDNA test you want (autosomal, Y DNA or mtDNA; if you’re not sure, start with autosomal). They will provide you with the test kit identification number you need to send along with your sample, and will tell you where to send it.
Once FTDNA processes the sample, it will officially become an FTDNA test kit. An email will be sent to the email address provided with the sample, and then the results can be explored. Depending on the quality of the sample, you may or may not later be able to upgrade to additional tests. In my friend’s case, fortunately, she was able to upgrade to YDNA and eventually even do Big Y testing, since she wanted to learn more about his paternal deeper ancestral origins.
DNA Testing of the Recently Deceased
When I connected with FTDNA to confirm this information, they also sent me instructions for collecting a DNA sample from someone who is recently deceased. Here’s what they sent:
“In the case of deceased individuals, testing can still be conducted, but there is a specific set of rules to follow in collecting a sample of a high enough quality to be extracted in our lab.
Typically, we recommend utilizing sterile swabs to collect a sample. There is a paternity test kit commonly purchased at drugstores such as Walgreens or CVS known as the Identigene test kit. This test kit will contain sterile swabs appropriate for this emergency special case situation.
Once the swabs are collected, please allow these swabs to dry on a clean paper towel in a cool dry environment. Do not put into a glass or plastic environment or packaging as this will trap moisture and encourage bacterial and fungal growth, which will negatively affect the quality of the sample.
After the samples have dried, a customer service representative…can be contacted over the phone or via our Contact Us form in order to place an order for a test kit through our system. This kit will not be shipped out, as you have already collected the sample. Instead, we will mark the kit as ‘no shipping is required’ and wait for dry swabs to be delivered to our facility. You can place the dry swabs into a paper envelope clearly marked with the kit number generated by our Customer Service Representative, and then place that into a padded mailer.”
The email included a mailing address, but rather than share that one, I recommend confirming the current mailing address with FTDNA before you send off the sample. You don’t want it getting lost!
A Note about Consent
DNA testing requires informed consent, which becomes tricky when testing a dying or recently deceased relative. If your relative is alive and is able to make decisions, he or she should provide consent for their DNA to be collected. If your living relative isn’t able to give clear consent, or if your relative has passed, the decision may naturally fall to next-of-kin (or whomever is charge of these kinds of decisions). This doesn’t constitute legal advice—we’re not lawyers here at Your DNA Guide. We just want to remind you to be ethical when it comes to respecting the person’s wishes.
Next Steps in DNA Testing for Your Relative
Getting the right person to take a DNA test is just the first step to using genetic genealogy to learn more about your family tree. Download our free guide to learn more about how you can identify unknown ancestors using DNA.
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Regarding DNA tests on the recently deceased: I was fortunate that I had a FamilyTreeDNA kit in my possession when we arrived at the location of a relative’s death in another state. When I asked the funeral home about whether they would be able to collect a DNA sample, they said yes. They also told me that because the embalming process had already begun (this was 2 to 3 days after she passed away), it might not work. I had nothing to lose, so we went ahead with the test. The funeral home staff did the swab and returned it to me, which I promptly sent in. Ultimately, it did work, so I have the results. (It never hurts to ask them!).
Thanks for sharing your experience!