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You’ve Taken a DNA Test and Uncovered a Family Secret. Now What?

Cautious communication, protecting personal information can prevent heartache

spinner image kasi mireles taylor and her family
DNA testing helped Kasi Mireles-Taylor (standing, third from left) connect with five half-siblings she hadn't known before.
Photo courtesy Kasi Mireles-Taylor

When people take DNA tests and enter their results into databases containing millions of records, they have the opportunity to connect with long-lost family members. The results can be delightful — or shocking.

Some people find distant relatives in other countries or reconnect with those they have lost touch with. But for others, the outcome can be unexpected: half siblings they didn’t know existed or evidence showing a father isn’t a biological relation. These findings can reveal long-held secrets about extramarital affairs or unplanned pregnancies, and can create emotional turmoil for everyone involved.

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“When you take a DNA test, you have to be prepared for answers you want — and answers you don’t like,” says David McDonald, president of the Association of Professional Genealogists.

With more than 26 million DNA samples in public databases on Ancestry, 23andMe and other services, it is easier than ever to find matches with relatives. These online platforms allow users to conduct their own searches and message others to reconnect or make first contact with distant or previously unknown family members.

DNA kits and revelations

When Kasi Mireles-Taylor, 47, of Aurora, Colorado, checked her results four years ago, she was surprised to see her DNA matched to a half brother she didn’t know she had. The results confirmed a family rumor that her mother had vehemently denied until her death, Mireles-Taylor says: that her mother had had a dalliance while her parents were separated, with a man who was Mireles-Taylor’s biological father, but not the father who raised her.

Mireles-Taylor decided to tell her father right away, in case he had submitted his own DNA sample in a kit that she had purchased for him. “I didn’t want him to find out the same way I did, with a cheerful dialogue box,” she says.

She broke the news as gently as she could. “I said: ‘I love you. I will always love you. You’re my father, but we’re not biologically related,’ ” she says. He responded that he had long suspected that Mireles-Taylor’s mother had conceived her with another man during a marital separation.

“Then he said, ‘Nothing changes,’ ” she says. “What he meant was, ‘Nothing changes about my love for you.’”

Now, Mireles-Taylor has a relationship with both of her fathers, as well as five half siblings from her biological father’s two marriages.

“These are people who I would pick as friends if we weren’t related,” she says. “They feel like my kind of people.”

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How to communicate with new relatives

When Mary Hanson, 50, of Minneapolis, found a match to a half brother on 23andMe in January 2020, she was not surprised. Hanson’s parents divorced when she was young, and her father was not a part of her life. Before the advent of DNA testing, Hanson’s mother had received calls from people trying to track down her ex-husband because they thought he was their father.

Shortly after Hanson received her own DNA results, a half sister reached out. They exchanged messages, and soon the half sister started to ask for money. Hanson decided to cut off contact.

When 23andMe linked Hanson’s DNA to her half brother, they started a dialogue on the company’s messaging application.

“Matt didn’t seem to want anything,” Hanson, 50, said. “He was just looking for his genealogy. … I got the gut feeling that he was a nice person.”

They met in June when Matt visited family in Minneapolis for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Connecting with DNA matches

So what to do when you find, or are contacted by, these previously unknown relatives?

Mireles-Taylor, Hanson and genealogists recommend that searchers set reasonable expectations when connecting with newly discovered family members. Understand that their sudden appearance can disrupt a family and cause conflict. They should not expect anything more than information to inform their medical history and the story behind their birth, says Richard Hill, who tracked down his birth parents via DNA evidence and now helps adopted people reconnect with birth parents.

“Probably 90 percent of cases, the birth parent is at least willing to give information and answer the adoptee’s questions,” Hill says. “They are willing to help that person get some kind of closure.”

Mireles-Taylor and Hanson have other recommendations, too:

  • Reach out with messages through the DNA site, social media or even by mail. Written communications allow the recipient to process the news and discuss it with others; phone calls from out of the blue may shock them and put them on the defensive.
  • Protect your identity. When setting up profiles on the DNA sites, use your initials or a pseudonym. Wait until you’re comfortable with the newfound connection before sharing personal information like birth date, email addresses or your children’s names. Make sure all of your social media accounts have strict privacy settings, Hanson says.
  • Don’t jump quickly into relationships with new family connections. Get to know each other over messages or through letters. If you feel comfortable, talk over the phone. Only when you’ve had a chance to establish a rapport, arrange a time to meet.
  • Focus on developing new relationships. Mireles-Taylor says at first she tried to find out as much as she could about her mother’s relationship with her biological father. She learned about her parents’ separation and that her biological father was between marriages when he and her mother had their relationship. But Mireles-Tayor eventually decided to let go of the past because she would never learn all of the details. Instead, she celebrated her new family connections.

Even in cases that are not emotionally challenging, sometimes newfound family members do not accept invitations to connect.

Crista Cowan, the corporate genealogist for Ancestry, had a DNA match to a fourth cousin in England. She reached out to the person but never heard back. Cowan has had a better experience with the second cousins she knew as a child. When she grew up in California, Cowan’s family had large reunions near her grandparents’ home in Los Angeles. After she moved to Oregon and later to Washington, she and her family did not make the trip for the annual reunions. Over time, she lost touch with second cousins. DNA testing helped her reconnect with several of them.

Mireles-Taylor approached forming a relationship with her newfound relatives with caution. After learning the news, she waited a while before sending a letter to her biological father. Then, she sent a Facebook message to the biological brother that 23andMe had matched her with. The family relationship grew deeper when the five siblings scheduled separate phone calls with her to introduce themselves over the course of five nights. After that, she talked to her biological father.

“They were all very kind, very inclusive, and they understood it was a big shock to me,” Mireles-Taylor says. “There are so many wonderful things that have come from it.”

Pre-pandemic, Mireles-Taylor saw this new part of her family about once a year. During one of the visits, her brothers and sisters asked her to recreate a photo from their childhood — this time with their newfound sister added in.

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