Updated: Jan 7, 2022
In two previous posts, I explained a little bit about the way I work and introduced a case I was working on that involved DNA. The client was a lawyer representing John Smith, who believed he was Harry Brown’s son. Harry had recently died without a will, wife or other children, so Harry would be the sole beneficiary of his estate if parentage was proved. I was asked to find a genetic link between John Smith and Harry Brown, so John could prove that he was Harry’s son, but Harry’s relatives refused to take DNA tests from a court approved lab. We decided to have John test at a commercial genetics website, (such as Ancestry.com) in the hopes that he would find matches to members of Harry’s family who had also tested online.
After 6 weeks of waiting, the day arrived: John’s DNA had been analyzed and his matches were in! I was really excited to see who matched with him. We already knew that John was related to his mother, so I focused only on matches on Harry Brown’s side:
So Close Yet So Far...
I had been hoping that perhaps Harry Brown’s sister, Jenny Brown, or her children had tested. A match at the first cousin or aunt level would have proved conclusively that Harry was John’s father. Another good match would have been if Lucy Miller had had children or grandchildren who had tested. Matches that close would show that John shared a high percentage of DNA and had to be Harry’s son.
Unfortunately, Lucy died unmarried and without children. The closest match on Harry Brown’s side was a third cousin, James Ehrler. It was not a bad match, as it clearly showed that John shared genetic relationships with Harry’s family. But it was not close enough to prove without a doubt that John was related specifically to Harry, and not someone else in the Brown/Miller family.
I had one last idea. If I could find matches on both Harry’s mother’s side (Miller) and Harry’s father’s side (Brown), it would show that John was genetically related to Harry himself. Unless there had been a previous Brown and Miller marriage farther back in the family line, the only people who could be related to both the Browns and Millers would be Harry, Jenny, (Harry’s sister), and Harry’s son, John.
Again, I had hoped to find a close match, perhaps a second cousin relationship. There weren’t any close relatives, but I did find relatives on Harry’s paternal side. Harry’s paternal grandmother had a sister, Geraldine Wood Lindell, and her descendant was John’s 3rd Cousin once removed, Nicole Lindell. I now had proof that John was related on both Harry’s maternal and paternal sides.
So was this a slam dunk? Not quite. A close match means you share more genetic material with the person. A more distant match means you share a smaller percentage of DNA with them. More distant matches mean you could be related in different ways. A third cousin can share the same percentage as a second cousin twice removed or even a fourth cousin. There’s more “wiggle room” for interpretation.
While very close matches would have had less room for interpretation, we were able to demonstrate that John and Harry could be related, and how, through a paper trail of marriage and birth records tracing John and his matches. Barring some unknown brother, given up for adoption by Harry’s parents, we could show that John shared Harry’s genetic line.
I presented the charts to my client, John’s lawyer. He and John needed to decide what to do. At the time I had finished the case, John’s lawyer was in touch with the family, discussing dividing the estate in a settlement that distributed equal shares to the known next of kin and John Smith. They could use the charts and analysis to show the family that a genetic relationship existed and could be proven.
The other thing to remember is that new people test all the time. Next week, a first cousin could test and match John. That would add more proof to the case. As more people test, new matches will appear.
The hard part of doing my research is that I rarely hear from the clients after I’ve finished my portion of the case. I’m hoping everything worked out for John Smith. At the very least, I gave him some closure: as he had suspected all his life, he was indeed genetically related to Harry Brown.
Katharine O'Connell is a forensic genealogist and the owner of North Coast Genealogy. Katharine has solved over 150 probate cases for clients such as national banks and estate planning attorneys.
Disclaimer: I adhere to a strict code of privacy created by the governing body in my field, the Board of Certification of Genealogists. All names and some relationships have been changed to protect the privacy of living people. In a case where real names would be used, only the client and the profile name on the testing site (often initials or a nickname) would be used to show match relationships. Living people would only be listed by name if they made that public on the DNA testing site and would not be revealed outside of the attorney/client relationship without permission of the matches themselves.