A good DNA testing plan can help you solve family history mysteries and discover more about your biological family tree. Planning ahead helps you maximize your chances of success, set realistic expectations and use your time and money wisely.
Most people pursue DNA testing for family history for two main reasons: first, because they have a biological or family history mystery they are trying to solve; or second, just because it seems like a good idea (everyone else is doing it, right?).
Whatever your reason, but ESPECIALLY if you are trying to solve a mystery, you need a plan. Otherwise you might spend way too much money on the wrong test, and way too much time analyzing results before finally discovering that test can’t tell you what you hope to learn.
Before you read any further…if you are looking for your own birth parent(s) and/or siblings, go to our Finding Your Birth Parents resource page. Download our free guide to what DNA can tell you about your birth roots (without having to connect with birth relatives, if you’re not ready for that step yet).
Create a DNA testing plan
Learn what kinds of questions DNA testing can answer.
Creating a realistic DNA testing plan means first understanding what DNA can and can’t do, both alone and in combination with additional research. So first, read my article on the limits of DNA testing for family history. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Did you read it? Good. Now you know that DNA alone will not serve up the name of your unknown person. But it can, in combination with some savvy analysis and genealogical research. DNA alone will not nail down your exact genealogical relationship to someone. But it does give you a range of possible relationships, which, again, you’ll use along with that savvy analysis and genealogical research.
The kinds of questions you can answer also depend on the type of DNA test you take. Autosomal DNA tests* (from AncestryDNA, 23andMe, MyHeritage, Family Tree DNA or Living DNA) can help you rebuild your family tree and identify mystery relatives from the present generation back to about your 3X great grandparents. Depending on your question, you might also use Y DNA testing to learn about your paternal-only biological line (just the fathers) or mtDNA for your maternal line (meaning, your mother’s female ancestors). You can purchase Y DNA tests and mtDNA tests from Family Tree DNA. A best DNA testing plan often involves combining multiple kinds of DNA tests.
Choose a specific DNA question.
Now that you have an idea of the kinds of questions DNA can help answer, it’s time for you to choose your own question. Your best DNA testing plan will be based around a specific question. Here are some examples of questions DNA can help tackle:
- Did my granddad and his brother share the same biological father?
- Who were the parents of my great-grandmother, Jane Lewis?
- Am I related to the Petrosyan family that lived in [place] in the late 1800s?
- From what part of Sweden was my family?
- Did the children in the family belong biologically to the first wife/husband or second one?
- Was the father named by my ancestor’s mother really her birth father?
- Have I identified the correct person/couple as the ancestors?
Learn how DNA can help answer that question.
Every situation is a little different—we can’t possibly address them all here. But I do walk you through all kinds of DNA questions-and-answer-paths in Your DNA Guide—the Book. That’s the best way to start learning how to use DNA to answer your family history question. But I do want to show you an example, so you can see how this works.
Example: “Who were the parents of my great-grandmother, Jane Lewis?”
Let’s say Jane was your mom’s dad’s mom—meaning, she’s not on your direct maternal line. The test to start with, in this case, is the autosomal test, which sheds light on both sides of a person’s family tree for about five or six generations back.
Now let’s consider how far back she is in your genetic story. You only carry about 12% of Jane’s DNA (you have roughly 50% of your mom’s, 25% of your grandpa’s), and only about 6% of the DNA of the people you are trying to find (Jane’s parents). So if we want to know more about Jane and her parents using DNA, we need more DNA. Most helpful will be the DNA of your second cousins, people who descend from one of Jane’s other children (or the descendants of your grandfather’s siblings). By finding and testing a second cousin, not only are you able to capture more of Jane’s DNA, but you will able to isolate the DNA you received from Jane and her husband (we can’t separate the two at this point) from the DNA you received from your other seven great grandparent couples. Eventually, you’ll be looking for third cousins who might be related to Jane’s parents, or even 4th cousins who might be related to Jane’s grandparents.
Even if you’re not quite ready to tackle a specific questions like this, you can learn to start sorting out your DNA matches by which branch of the family they belong to. Get started with my free downloadable guide, “4 Next Steps for Your DNA.”
DNA testing…just for the record
For those of you who are testing as part of an overall strategy to document the most complete family tree (and to join the genetic genealogy party!), your testing strategy should be to gather autosomal test results from second cousins from each of your known ancestral lines at the great grandparent level.
You should also consider finding a direct paternal line descendant of each of your four great grandfathers to take a YDNA test from to represent the surnames of each of those lines. The Y-DNA provides a record of these direct paternal lines can help you sort out how different lineages with the same, or similar surname are related, among other things. Consider mtDNA testing to better identify female ancestors (you’ll want to read more about mtDNA’s strengths and limitations).
Keep recruiting your relatives to be tested. Keep building your family tree through genealogical research. The more you know, the more you learn! Gradually you’ll chip away at those genetic genealogy mysteries. If you don’t have a specific question on your mind yet, you’ll probably eventually come across one, and you’ll be better prepared to address it.
Want help creating your DNA testing plan?
As I mentioned earlier, you’ll probably want to start with a copy of Your DNA Guide—the Book. But if your DNA question or situation seems particularly overwhelming or tricky, consider a one-on-one Mentoring session with one of our DNA experts. This investment can save you time and money in the long run. We’ll help you determine the right testing strategy—and most important people to test right and types of tests to take—for your own DNA questions!