Develop Your DNA Testing Plan for Genealogy

Developing a DNA testing plan can help ensure that your genetic genealogy testing has targeted goals and maximized results. Follow these tips from Legacy Tree Genealogists to create your own DNA testing plan. Already taken a test? It’s not too late to develop a real plan to get the most out of your results.

Your DNA testing plan

You have taken your DNA test, and you have your ethnicity estimate, but how does genetic genealogy testing actually help you with your genealogy? Where do you even begin? By developing a DNA testing plan you can ensure that you pursue your research with a focused goal in mind, which will help determine how best to proceed.

Thank you to Legacy Tree Genealogists for providing us with this guest blog post.

Moving beyond ethnicity estimates

Even though ethnicity estimates get a great deal of attention, the most genealogically valuable element of your DNA test results is the match list which connects you to others based on your shared DNA inheritance. As you begin working with your DNA test results within the context of your genealogy, we recommend sharing and collaborating with your genetic cousins. The main goal of your correspondence with genetic cousins might be to determine the nature of your relationship, but could also include sharing information regarding your shared heritage and ancestors, or requesting their help in recruiting additional relatives to test.

However, your match list may sometimes present problems of its own. If it includes several thousand individuals it might seem overwhelming. If you only have a handful of matches, it might be discouraging. In either case, there is no need to worry. Genetic genealogy tests are constantly changing as more people test. If you have too many matches, just focus on the closest ones. If you don’t have enough, the genetic cousins you need to make genealogical breakthroughs may not have tested yet. Waiting for the right cousins to test need not be a passive pursuit. Consider target testing your known relatives (or the known relatives of your matches) to better achieve your research goals.

Creating a DNA testing plan

In order to create a robust testing plan, you first need to have a specific research subject and a clear objective. Focus on a single ancestor. Make a goal of what you hope to discover through DNA testing. DNA testing is ideal for addressing questions regarding kinship, but is not as good for exploring motivations, biographical detail or uncovering ancestral stories. Once you have a research subject and objective, then you can evaluate which relatives will be the best candidates to test to thoroughly address your research problem.

In this post we will create an example DNA testing plan for John Martin who was adopted by a shopkeeper and his wife in the mid-1800s. We have few clues as to who his biological parents may have been. Our research subject is John Martin, and our stated objective is to determine the identities of his biological parents.

Understanding shared DNA

Because of the unique inheritance pattern of autosomal DNA, testing multiple relatives of a specific research subject can be extremely beneficial. Each individual inherits half of their autosomal DNA from each of their parents. Beyond that, the amount of DNA shared in common is only approximate due to a random process – called recombination – which shuffles the DNA each generation. Each individual will inherit about 25% from each grandparent, 12.5% from each great-grandparent and approximately half the previous amount for each subsequent generation. Although two first cousins will have both inherited 25% of their DNA from each of their common grandparents (50% in total) they will have inherited a different 25%. Therefore, first cousins will typically only share about 12.5% of their DNA in common. Because descendants along distinct lines inherit different portions of their common ancestors’ DNA, it is important to test as many people from distinct family lines as possible.

Tip: Right click and ‘Save Image’ to your computer, then print this free, quick reference chart:

Don’t overlook the importance of traditional genealogy research!

Since it can be extremely beneficial to test multiple descendants of a research subject, before pursuing a detailed testing plan we recommend documenting as many descendants of an ancestor of interest as possible through traditional research. Though this process can be time consuming, it is often worth the effort. By tracing all descendants, you can accurately evaluate which genetic cousins will be best to invite to perform DNA testing. Additionally, tracing the descendants of ancestors can frequently lead to additional clues for extending ancestry. Just as different descendants inherit different DNA, they also inherit different information and historical documents regarding their ancestors. Some of that information could include clues regarding the very relationships you are trying to clarify. While searching for descendants of your ancestor of interest, consider utilizing compiled family histories, obituaries, city directories, family organizations and public records to identify living descendants.

In tracing the descendants of John Martin, we found that he had three children who lived to adulthood. We traced each of their descendants through traditional research and identified 10 living relatives (shown in gray, below). Now that we know the identities of all his living descendants we can prioritize which relatives to test.

Who you decide to test as part of your research problem can be considered within the context of coverage. Coverage is the amount of an ancestor’s DNA that is represented in a DNA among all of their tested descendants. Coverage can be estimated by determining the amount of DNA that one descendant shares with a common ancestor, plus the DNA that another descendant shares with that same ancestor, minus the DNA that both descendants share in common with that ancestor. When two full siblings perform DNA testing, they obtain a coverage of about 75% of their parents’ DNA. Testing three full siblings results in about 87.5% coverage of their parents’ DNA.

Prioritize testing to achieve the highest level of coverage

To achieve the highest coverage of a research subject’s DNA, prioritize testing the closest generational descendants. A living granddaughter of a research subject will have inherited much more DNA from the ancestor of interest than a second great grandson. You can often find the closest generational descendants of a research subject by searching for the youngest child of the youngest child of each generation of their descendants. These individuals will typically have the longest generation times, and therefore have a greater likelihood of having close living descendants.

Keep in mind that any DNA inherited from a common ancestor has to come through an individual’s immediate ancestors. If a granddaughter of a research subject is still living, and she in turn has descendants, any of the DNA that her children or grandchildren inherited from the research subject had to have come through her, and will be a subset of her own DNA. Therefore, if the granddaughter is tested, there is no need to test her descendants as well within the context of the research objective.

For example, in the case of John Martin, his granddaughter Maria is the closest living generational descendant. She will share much more DNA with John Martin than any of his other descendants. Also, any DNA that Maria’s descendants (Jennifer Jones or Matthew Williams) inherited from John Martin would be a subset of the DNA that Maria inherited from John. Therefore, if we were able to test Maria, we would not need to test Jennifer or Matthew.

Also, to achieve the highest coverage of DNA, we recommend testing descendants from unique lines. If a research subject had three children who lived to adulthood, rather than testing descendants of a single child consider testing descendants from each of the children. Testing only descendants of a single child limits the maximum coverage we can achieve, while testing descendants from each line enables maximum coverage. In this case, testing Maria, George, and Isaac or Julia would result in slightly higher coverage than testing Maria, Isaac, and Julia.

Other benefits of creating a DNA testing plan

So far, our discussion on testing plans has focused on the descendants of a research subject. However, it can also be beneficial to test other individuals as part of a research plan. Testing known relatives from other family lines can help to filter DNA test results. Any matches shared between a test subject and a known relative can be assigned to that side of the family. If there are proposed candidates who might be among the ancestors of the research subject, their descendants might be tested to prove or disprove hypotheses regarding their relationship. If, after testing, there are still very few genetic cousins, consider collaborating with those cousins to test their older relatives or representative family members from their various ancestral lines.

In this case, it has been proposed that John Martin was the son of a woman named Jessie Brown. Traditional research revealed that Jessie Brown had other living descendants who might be tested. Their test results could be used to confirm or refute the hypothesis of John’s relationship to Jessie. If their results confirm John and Jessie’s relationship, they could also be used to isolate which genetic cousins of the descendants of John Martin are likely related through the ancestry of John’s father. Finally, testing close known relatives from the other ancestral lines of each testing candidate could help to filter which genetic cousins are related through the ancestry of John Martin.

Since most researchers work within a limited research budget, developing a DNA testing plan can help prioritize which DNA test(s) should be performed first, and can help maximize the chances of successful resolution of research problems. Choose a research subject, define a clear objective, research their living descendants, prioritize DNA testing, and maximize your chances for genealogical discovery.

Creating a DNA testing plan can mean the difference between DNA results that solve genealogy mysteries and a few less-meaningful slices of ethnicity pie chart. It takes a bit of extra time, but it’s worth it.

And don’t worry: if you feel a little lost when working with DNA, Legacy Tree Genealogists has expert professionals (like today’s author) who can help you with your DNA testing plan AND help you integrate DNA discoveries and your traditional research finds for more powerful, confident answers to your family history mysteries. It’s easy to request a free consultation, and we have even arranged an exclusive offer just for our readers: $100 off a 20-hour+ research project with code GGP100.

Why Do DNA Testing for Family History If You Already “Know” Your Tree

“I don’t need DNA testing for family history: my pedigree is full!” I still hear this occasionally. But here’s why everyone doing their family history should take at least one DNA test.

Full tree You still need DNA testing

Teenagers (including my own) are always talking about the things that “everyone else has,” a phenomenon that Malcolm Gladwell describes as the “tipping point.” He says that the tipping point is “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point” for change in human behavior. For my kids, it’s everything from the point at which a party becomes fun to doing everything humanly possible to procure a fidget-spinner (if you don’t know what that is, ask the nearest 11-year-old).

In DNA testing for family history in the United States, that tipping point is now. We have reached the point where most genealogists at least have the passing notion that genetics can be useful in genealogy. Most genealogists (I would guess 85%) who attend the lectures I give have already had at least one DNA test completed.

Let’s stop for just one minute and recognize how incredible that is! Not too long ago I was still trying to convince people that this was a good idea and that you didn’t have to dig up your ancestors to do it. But now we have scores of genealogists who have not only tested themselves, but have convinced half their family to test as well!

“I don’t need DNA testing for family history.” Really?

This got me thinking though: who are those people who haven’t tested? And why not? One category of people sans DNA test is those who have full pedigree charts. I have heard many of them say that they don’t see the need to do DNA testing since they have most of their lines “way back.”

To those with the blessing of ancestors who kept better records than mine, I am offering four reasons why you should RSVP anyway to your invitation to DNA test.

1. To create and preserve a unique record. First and foremost, your DNA is a record. Just as you have obtained birth certificates and marriage licenses for your ancestors, your DNA is a unique record. It does represent you and your family in a way that no other record can. It is a document of your genetic history and should be preserved. Further, while you may doubt the ability of your DNA to shed light on your current genealogy, don’t underestimate the contribution it might make in the future.

2. Because you have second cousins. And third cousins, and fourth cousins, etc. Having your DNA tested means you can see a biological connection between you and other relatives that have had tested. For many, the idea of meeting or forming relationships with distant cousins is not appealing. But even if you have no intention of attending DNA family reunions or even in corresponding with these relatives, there is something reassuring about seeing them there on your match list. There is a certain thrill that comes with recognizing the connection between you and someone else. A connection that may not add any new names to your tree, but it helps you feel a deeper connection to your ancestor, and a greater appreciation for your biology.

Genetic vs Genealogcial Cousins3. To verify what’s on your tree. Which brings me to the next point. Seeing these cousins on your list can actually help verify the genealogy you have already collected and documented. It helps to reassure you that you have made the right steps along the way, and may help you gain additional resources about your relative through their descendants that you find on your match list. Resources that can help turn that ancestor from a name on a chart to a story and a life worth preserving.

Verifying what’s on your tree brings with it a certain amount of uncertainty, it’s true. In fact, in the process of verifying your tree, you may discover new genetic truths about it. You may find that some who you thought biologically related actually aren’t, and you may discover new biological relatives you didn’t know about. Not everyone is prepared for this, especially if they’re pretty sure they know everything about their ancestry. But increasingly, I’m finding, people do want to know about a second cousin who was adopted out of the family or their grandpa’s secret half-sibling–and these connections may never emerge unless you participate in DNA testing for family history.

Remember, your genealogical pedigree is not the same as your genetic pedigree! Click here to read about different things you may learn from each one.

4. To help someone else build their tree. The last reason to go ahead and have your DNA tested is to help others. If you have been lucky enough to fill in most of the blanks on your tree, you can help others do the same by simply having your DNA tested. Your DNA provides a link to your tree that might be just what someone needs to overcome a brick wall in their family history.

So, if you have been hanging out on the outskirts of DNA testing because you feel like your tree is full enough without it, remember to RSVP to your invitation to be DNA tested, and join the party!

Test DNA for Family HistoryClick here to get started with DNA testing for family history. You’ll learn who to test, why to test, what tests you can take and where to purchase them. You can watch a short video about getting started and see additional resources that will help you get the most out of your testing experience all along the way.

Why You Should Contact Your DNA Matches: “Now I’m Climbing a Whole Different Tree!”

Trying to contact your DNA matches can be frustrating when they don’t respond, but it’s still worth reaching out to them. This researcher’s example shows a good reason why.

contact DNA matches

Contact Your DNA Matches

Recently, I heard from Genealogy Gems Premium website member Ruth*, whose DNA success story reminds me of the value of reaching out to DNA matches, even if the general response rate is low or slow. She says:

“I’ve been researching my family tree for over 20 years and sometimes it can get boring…because most of the lines are pretty much out as far as I can go and I’m now just working on brick walls! I love listening to your podcast because it motivates me to keep going!

Like many of your listeners, I have taken the autosomal DNA test. It has been an awesome tool helping me confirm family lines and sometimes finding new ones. However, I’m sure most of your readers know that for some reason a lot of those DNA matches and even tree owners in general, do not respond to emails or messages. It can be very frustrating, especially if it is one of those lines that you really could use some help on. The lack of response to inquiries sometimes makes me wonder if I should even try to make contact. Well, I want to tell your listeners, that yes it is worth it.

Recently, I was browsing trees and I came to a tree that listed my 3rd great-grandfather Daniel Cannon; however, this tree listed Daniel’s wife as Mary Ann Watkins and I had her as Mary Ann Cook! Well, I decided to contact the owner of that tree and explained I had Daniel’s wife as a Cook. The two of us started emailing back and forth and I found out this gentleman, whose last name is Watkins, had taken a DNA test and was in Ancestry.com’s database.

Sure enough, when I searched my mom’s matches I found him. Mr. Watkins shared the information he had [which was] an excerpt that listed the heirs of G. B. Watkins and Elizabeth Smith. On that list was Mary Ann Constable. From the census records, I knew that Mary Ann Cannon had married Thomas Constable after her husband had died. The marriage license for Mary Ann Cannon and Thomas Constable is no longer at the courthouse, but I was able to get a copy of the excerpt of the book it was recorded in. So now I’m climbing a whole different tree!

So, go ahead and reach out to those matches or those people who have trees with different information from you. You never know when you’ll find information and end up with a new line to research!”

Time to Maximize Your DNA Matches

Our resident genetic genealogist, Your DNA Guide Diahan Southard, has written a series of 3 DNA quick guides to help you maximize your DNA testing experience:

This “value pack” can help you sort your matches more wisely, reach out to them in a positive way, and track your correspondence. Click here to read more about these guides and order your own. (Also available as digital downloads.)

Time to Test Your DNA Today

These companies all provide autosomal DNA testing, the most popular kind of DNA testing, and the kind Ruth used. Autosomal testing matches you to genetic relatives on both sides of your family tree to a depth of about 4-6 generations. Learn a little about each by clicking on the names below.

Ancestry DNA

MyHeritage DNA

23andMe

FamilyTreeDNA

*Ruth’s letter was erroneously attributed to Liz when it was shared and discussed in Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 200. Sorry for the mix-up!

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