Ask first

So last week the question posed to The Legal Genealogist was whether the cousin who had paid for a DNA test should share the results with the cousin who took the DNA test.

blurThe no-brainer answer is yes.1 Just because you paid for a test doesn’t mean you can close off the results to the cousin whose DNA was tested.

As noted last week, we now have working standards for genetic genealogists to consult when it comes to ethical questions like this. 2 And the applicable ethical standard here is that “Genealogists believe that testers have an inalienable right to their own DNA test results and raw data, even if someone other than the tester purchased the DNA test.”3

This week the question that came in was about the flip side of this issue: whether the cousin who paid for the test should share the results far and wide — with the name of the tested cousin, usually, still attached.

That answer should also be a no-brainer.

Unless you have consent, the answer is no.

No, no, no.

And in case that isn’t clear enough:


The ethical standards are as clear on this as they were on the first question: “Genealogists respect all limitations on reviewing and sharing DNA test results imposed at the request of the tester. For example, genealogists do not share or otherwise reveal DNA test results (beyond the tools offered by the testing company) or other personal information (name, address, or email) without the written or oral consent of the tester.”4

Even when it comes to writing about DNA results for scholarly research, the standards require that:

When lecturing or writing about genetic genealogy, genealogists respect the privacy of others. Genealogists privatize or redact the names of living genetic matches from presentations unless the genetic matches have given prior permission or made their results publicly available. Genealogists share DNA test results of living individuals in a work of scholarship only if the tester has given permission or has previously made those results publicly available.5

What this means, put in simple terms, is that we should not take a screen capture of DNA results from a testing company and post it in a blog post or on Facebook with the names or pictures of our matches still attached unless we’ve asked those matches specifically if we can post it.

And this isn’t a new idea, springing out of genetic genealogy alone. This is the long-time ethical standard of the genealogical community. This concept of protecting the privacy of living people can be found for example in:

• The Code of Ethics of the Board for Certification of Genealogists, which requires that board-certified genealogists pledge that: “I will keep confidential any personal or genealogical information given to me, unless I receive written consent to the contrary.”6

• The Standards for Sharing Information with Others of the National Genealogical Society, which advises us to “respect the restrictions on sharing information that arise from the rights of another … as a living private person; … inform people who have provided information about their families as to the ways it may be used, observing any conditions they impose and respecting any reservations they may express regarding the use of particular items… (and) require some evidence of consent before assuming that living people are agreeable to further sharing of information about themselves.”7

• The Code of Ethics of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, which notes that “If data is acquired that seems to contain the potential for harming the interests of other people, great caution should be applied to the treatment of any such data and wide consultation may be appropriate as to how such data is used. … Generally, a request from an individual that certain information about themselves or close relatives be kept private should be respected.”8

So as responsible genetic genealogists we don’t just take a screen shot and post it. We take a second, using the tools in every photo program out there — including my favorite free program Irfanview — and blur out the names or photos of our matches as you can see in the image above of my own AncestryDNA results.

Or we do something really unusual.

We ask first.


  1. Judy G. Russell, “Whose DNA it is anyway?,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 18 Jan 2015 ( : accessed 24 Jan 2015).
  2. See ibid., “DNA: good news, bad news,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 11 Jan 2015.
  3. Paragraph 3, Standards for Obtaining, Using, and Sharing Genetic Genealogy Test Results, “Genetic Genealogy Standards,” ( : accessed 18 Jan 2015).
  4. Ibid., paragraph 8.
  5. Ibid., paragraph 9.
  6. Code of Ethics and Conduct,” Board for Certification of Genealogists ( : accessed 24 Jan 2015).
  7. Standards for Sharing Information with Others, 2000, PDF, National Genealogical Society ( : accessed 24 Jan 2015).
  8. IAJGS Ethics for Jewish Genealogists,” International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies ( : accessed 24 Jan 2015).
Posted in DNA | 4 Comments

The anniversary questions

The Legal Genealogist surely wasn’t surprised that they got divorced.

My parents — who married 67 years ago today — were as different as chalk and cheese.

weddingHe was formal German immigrant.

She was folksy U.S. southern — of the West Texas variety.

He was raised as an only child, his only sibling having died before he was born.

She was the fifth-born of 12 children, and the fourth of 10 to survive to adulthood.

He was a college graduate, with a degree in engineering.

She dropped out of high school to work in the war effort.

He liked fried chicken livers and limburger cheese.

She liked fried okra and biscuits and gravy.

He fell asleep watching the 10 o’clock news.

She fell asleep watching the sunrise.

Even in appearances they were total opposites. He was blue-eyed and blond, at least as a child. She was dark-eyed and dark-haired — and pretty close to three inches taller.

No, it wasn’t a surprise at all that they divorced. The surprise was that they stayed together as long as they did.

And the real mystery is what brought them together in the first place.

Oh, I know the stories. He was teaching at the Colorado School of Mines. She was working as a paleontology assistant, doing painstaking work creating micropaleontology slides.

They started seeing each other sometime in the summer or fall of 1947; the ink on his divorce papers from his first wife was probably still wet.

And, the story goes, he went home to Chicago for Christmas 1947 and came back to find that she hadn’t met him as expected. He went to her apartment, got no response when he knocked, and broke the door down to find that she’d been overcome by fumes from a malfunctioning heater.

They were married three weeks later.

But the stories that were told aren’t the stories I’d like to hear today, not at all.

What was it about this newly-divorced man, who’d left a child behind when he left Chicago, that drew my mother to him? Did she know about the divorce, and the child, when they first met? How did he explain that to that family-centered young woman?

What was it about her raucous West Texas upbringing that drew my father to her? Did he have any clue what he was getting into when he decided to marry a woman who had more brothers and sisters than he had relatives of any stripe in the entire United States?

What did they talk about, as they looked to a future together? How did they think their two so-very-disparate backgrounds would mesh?

Growing up in a house where conflict was the rule, my brothers and sisters and I know only too well what drove them apart.

But what brought them together?

On this day, 67 years after they were joined together, I wish I’d thought to ask…

Posted in My family | 8 Comments

Library at risk in budget cuts

One of Indiana’s great treasures, of immense value to genealogists, is on the political chopping block.

ISL_Logo_4-20-2009Will you join The Legal Genealogist in speaking out against a proposal to kill the Genealogy Department at the Indiana State Library?

Word arrived yesterday from the Indiana Genealogical Society that the budget bill introduced in the Indiana House includes a massive 24% reduction in funding to the Indiana State Library.

In addition to cutting at least 10% of the library staff, the bill would eliminate all funding — every last penny — for the Genealogy Department of the library.1

The Indiana State Library houses a collection described this way by State Librarian Jacob Speer:

The Indiana State Library (ISL) is home to one of the largest Genealogy collections in the Midwest. This collection (over 100,000 items) is focused on Indiana, states from which Indiana was settled as well as some foreign countries. The collection is rich with unique family histories and genealogy materials that cannot be found in other locations. In comparison, the Indiana Historical Society (IHS) only collects materials on Indiana and the Old Northwest – genealogy research can never be restricted to one state only. Family trees branch outside of a single state and spread throughout the country and across oceans. Genealogy collections (including ours) contain materials for neighboring states as well as items covering the east and southern coasts (where most immigrants landed) and genealogical resources for other countries (mainly in Europe where most immigrants came from). These types of resources are not collected by IHS or the Indiana State Archives or the Historical Bureau.

In addition, the ISL serves as the Genealogy destination for patrons that use the Indianapolis Marion County Public Library (IPL). In the past, IPL donated their collection to ISL because they were not going to actively collect for Genealogy and they wanted somewhere close by to send their patrons and know they would get service in this area. Over the years they have also donated funds so that ISL could purchase valuable Genealogy research materials to be kept in the collection and used by patrons statewide. It has been a beneficial partnership.2

House Bill 1001, the Indiana State Budget Bill, threatens “the availability and use of a one-of-a-kind resource that includes many elements of family history and Indiana history.”3 It would cut off every penny to the Genealogy Department, even though nearly half of all reference questions that come in to the Indiana State Library ask for information from its genealogical holdings.

The bill is shortsighted, its impacts devastating, and we need to speak out — clearly and loudly — as a community that the $400,000 cut from the Library’s budget for genealogy must be restored.

The Indiana Genealogical Society offers the following guidance in contacting members of the Indiana Legislature about this:

We encourage Indiana residents to contact their state legislators and members of the House Ways and Means Committee and weigh in on this important issue. You can locate contact information for your state legislators here and the House Ways and Means Committee here.4

People outside of Indiana can contact Rep. Timothy Brown, Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. Those dollars that you spend in the state while you’re researching at the Indiana State Library add up.5

The points to be made in our contacts with Indiana legislators are these:

• The Indiana State Library Genealogy Department is an irreplaceable resource with a very small price tag that should not be cut.

• If we are Indiana residents, we’re in a unique position to remind the members of the Legislature that we’re genealogists and we vote. And that how we vote is very likely to depend on what our legislators do about this issue.

• If we aren’t Indiana residents, we can make it clear to the elected officials there that we spend large sums of money traveling to do genealogical research, and the Indiana State Library is a research destination. We will spend our research dollars elsewhere if funding is cut, resulting in a net loss to Indiana hotels, restaurants and tourism in general far exceeding the small amount needed to keep the Genealogy Department fully funded. To put it bluntly, we vote with our wallets.

Yes, it’s time consuming to have to write to these legislators, and yes, time is something we all have precious little of.

But the time we spend now may pay off for us all for a lifetime.

Join me, please, and speak out for the Indiana State Library.


  1. See Amy Johnson Crow, “Proposed Elimination of Genealogy at the Indiana State Library,” Indiana Genealogical Society Blog, posted 22 Jan 2015 ( : accessed 23 Jan 2015).
  2. Jacob Speer, State Librarian, ISL 2015 Budget Cuts, 15 Jan 2015, PDF accessed 23 Jan 2015.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Crow, “Proposed Elimination of Genealogy at the Indiana State Library,” Indiana Genealogical Society Blog.
  5. Ibid.
Posted in General, Resources | 12 Comments

Two certificates, or more

It never fails.

Finish a blog post, get it posted, sit back, and somebody is sure to do it.

Somebody will remind The Legal Genealogist of questions that woulda-coulda-shoulda been addressed the first time around.

Yesterday was no exception.

death.certNo sooner had “Death in the wrong place”1 been published on the blog when long-time reader John Roose had just a couple of questions which, if I’d thought about it, should have had answers included yesterday.

First, he wondered, if Montana was issuing death certificates for people who were being buried in Montana but who had died elsewhere, doesn’t this mean that there are going to be two death certificates for any such person? One in Montana and one in the jurisdiction in which the person died?

Oh yes. There sure will be. As a matter of fact, the individual who originally posted the question on Facebook about Montana issuing a death certificate for a man who died in Minnesota was able to find the Minnesota death certificate for that individual.

And, of course, a good genealogist is going to get both. Because there’s a very good chance that information recorded on one such certificate won’t be on the other.

Remember the way the Montana regulation said the death certificate there was to be filled out: with information from the transit permit that accompanied the body from the original jurisdiction.2 Anything not recorded on that shipping document wouldn’t make it onto the death certificate.

Looking again at those Beaverhead County examples, it’s clear that not everything we’d want to know as genealogists made it onto the Montana certificates. Frank Birrer’s Montana death certificate didn’t identify his mother, or his exact date of birth, for example.3 Maybe his Washington State death certificate didn’t either, but I’d sure want to look.

And remember as well that every state will handle this issue of an out-of-state burial differently. Not all of them will issue death certificates in the burial state at all. This is a matter of state law, and it won’t always be the same as it was in Montana.

Second, John wanted to know, how would you locate the burial place from the certificate issued in the place where the person died or the death location from the certificate issued in the place where the person was buried?

Now that really should be easy — because each certificate should have that information.

• The death certificate where the person died should state what was being done with the remains: burial or cremation; when and where; the identity of the funeral director and the like. Certainly by the 1940s — when the certificates we were looking at yesterday were issued — the standard forms called for that information. And remember, there had been a recommended standard death certificate form as far back as 1900.4

• The death certificate where the burial was to take place should identify the place of death. That’s pretty basic information and none of the certificates I saw yesterday omitted that rather critical bit of data.

But then John noted that that didn’t seem to be univerally true: his own father’s death certificate, issued where he died in North Carolina, didn’t mention that the burial was out of state. It did give the name of the cemetery but didn’t bother mentioning that the cemetery was in Pennsylvania.

Wait a minute.

I’ve got a lot of North Carolina lines in my ancestry and have looked at a lot of North Carolina death certificates. In fact, North Carolina death certificates are online at Ancestry. And I was pretty sure that data should be there.

I quickly found John’s father’s death certificate, and it said right out that the burial was in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. I pointed that out to John.

Nope, he said. Not on his copy.

You know where this is headed, right?

What John had in his and the family’s possession was yet another flavor of death certificate.

It was typed on a form labeled “Certified Certificate of Death,” with a raised seal — from the county where John’s father died. Perfectly legal, good for all the things we need death certificates for, like opening an estate, or handling insurance claims, or getting bank accounts turned over.

But it was not an exact copy of the document that went to the Bureau of Vital Statistics in the state capital of Raleigh with all the information we might want on it.

Among the key differences:

• The county certificate doesn’t mention the decedent was married or give the widow’s maiden name; the state certificate does.

• The county certificate doesn’t say what the decedent did for a living; the state certificate does.

• The county certificate doesn’t identify the funeral home or the location of the cemetery; the state certificate does.

• And the critical piece for us as genealogists — the county certificate doesn’t say who the informants were: who provided the data about the death or about the family information; the state certificate does.

So there may not be two death certificates in the case of a death here and a burial there. There may be three death certificates.

And as careful researchers trying to do our reasonably exhaustive research, we’re going to want to get our hot little hands on every one of them.


  1. Judy G. Russell, “Death in the wrong place,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 21 Jan 2015 ( : accessed 22 Jan 2015).
  2. Public Health Laws and Regulations, State of Montana, Bulletin of the State Board of Health (Helena: State Board of Health, 1936), 62-63; digital images, Internet Archive ( : accessed 20 Jan 2015).
  3. Montana Bureau of Vital Statistics, death certificate no. 2788 (1943), Frank P. Birrer; digital images, “Montana, Beaverhead County Records, 1862-2009,” FamilySearch ( : accessed 20 Jan 2015).
  4. James A. Weed, “Vital Statistics in the United States: Preparing for the Next Century,” Population Index 61 (Winter 1995): 527-529; Office of Population Research, Princeton University; HTML version, Population Index -on the Web ( : accessed 22 Jan 2015).
Posted in Methodology, Resources | 24 Comments

That other death certificate

The question popped up on a Facebook group, and a reader promptly alerted The Legal Genealogist to this most interesting issue.

MT.deathWhy would a death certificate be issued by the State of Montana when the person died in another state?1

The example posted wasn’t a complete certificate, but it was absolutely clear that it wasn’t a mistake by a poster.

Nope, it was crystal clear: the man had died in Minnesota; the death certificate was from the State of Montana, Bureau of Vital Statistics.

And a quick check of death certificates digitized by for the State of Montana will turn up other examples, like the one you see illustrating this post (and you can click it to enlarge the image).

Just between 1941 and 1944 in the records of Beaverhead County alone, you will find death certificates of:

• Frank P. Birrer, who died in Spokane, Washington;2

• Leo Dwight Roland, who died aboard the SS Edwin B. DeGalia at sea off California3

• Earl Lewis Wheat, who died in Salt Lake City;4

• John Edie, who died in Kalamazoo, Michigan;5

• Peder Jensen, who died in Caldwell, Idaho;6

So… what’s up with this? Why is Montana issuing death certificates for people who died a long way away from the Big Sky State?

The answer, of course, will be found in the law.

Montana statutes for many years expressly required a burial permit before any body could be buried in the state. In the laws of 1921, for example, one section provided that: “No sexton or person in charge of any cemetery in which interments are made shall inter or permit the interment of any body unless it is accompanied by a burial permit …”7

The same was true in earlier laws: a burial permit had to be obtained, and to get the burial permit, a death certificate had to be filed with the local registrar’s office.8 And it was true later: the 1947 code provided that a death certificate had to be filed with the local registrar prior to interment or other disposition of a dead body.9

Although the statutes often spoke only in terms of deaths occurring in the state of Montana,10 there wasn’t any exception written into the law for a death occurring outside of the state. At a minimum, there had to be a permit issued by the state where the death occurred and that had to be recorded by the local registrar.11

And, of course, when the statutes don’t say everything we hope they might say, we can look to see if there are rules that fill in the gaps. And, in Montana, there were and they did. Regulation 63 of the Montana Board of Health at the time provided:

When bodies are brought into any registration district … from points without the State of Montana,… the local registrar of the district in which the body is to be interred … will issue a burial permit in the same way as if death had occurred in his district and make out a death certificate from the transit permit, writing across the face of such certificate the words “Imported Case.”12

And that is why you’ll find death certificates in Montana county records for deaths outside of Montana: it was legally required for a burial in Montana.


  1. Rose Caswell, Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness – RAOGK USA Facebook group, posted 20 Jan 2015.
  2. Montana Bureau of Vital Statistics, death certificate no. 2788 (1943), Frank P. Birrer; digital images, “Montana, Beaverhead County Records, 1862-2009,” FamilySearch ( : accessed 20 Jan 2015).
  3. Ibid., death certificate no. 2790 (1943), Leo Dwight Roland.
  4. Ibid., death certificate no. 2825 (1943), Earl Lewis Wheat.
  5. Ibid., death certificate no. 2833 (1943), John Edie.
  6. Ibid., death certificate no. 2848 (1943), Peder Jensen.
  7. §2531, Revised Codes of Montana of 1921 (San Francisco: Bancroft-Whitney, 1921), I: 993; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 20 Jan 2015).
  8. §1770, 1915 Supplement to the Revised Codes of Montana of 1907 (San Francisco: Bancroft-Whitney, 1916), 309; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 20 Jan 2015).
  9. See R.C.M. 1947, §69-4424, in State of Montana, Manual for Local Registrars (September 1975), 6; digital images, Internet Archive ( : accessed 20 Jan 2015).
  10. See §2526, Revised Codes of Montana of 1921.
  11. See C.44, L. 1943, in Montana State Board of Morticians, Laws, Rules and Regulations (n.p., 1963), 14-15; digital images, Internet Archive ( : accessed 20 Jan 2015).
  12. Public Health Laws and Regulations, State of Montana, Bulletin of the State Board of Health (Helena: State Board of Health, 1936), 62-63 (emphasis added); digital images, Internet Archive ( : accessed 20 Jan 2015).
Posted in Resources, Statutes | 15 Comments

One last bit of bragging

The Legal Genealogist has had an awful lot of good news here lately.

There was the inclusion in the American Bar Association Journal‘s “Blawg 100” list for the second year in a row.1

And then the popular vote win in the “Blawg 100” niche category for the second year in a row.2

And then the Utah Genealogical Association’s Silver Tray Award last Friday night.3

An awful lot of good news here lately.

To the point where, frankly, it’s a little embarrassing.

Which of course isn’t even going to slow me down from one last bit of bragging.4

GenealogyInTime Magazine, an online publication hailing from Canada, reports each year on the top 100 genealogy websites around the world. It describes its list this way:

top-100-genealogy-website-2015The annual GenealogyInTime Magazine Top 100 is the definitive list in genealogy. It profiles and ranks the best ancestral websites based on estimates of their internet traffic (as measured by Alexa, the internet traffic people). This results in a list that is objective, comprehensive and (most importantly) impartial.5

There’s a lot of discussion of the methodology and metrics used in creating the list, but GenealogyInTime Magazine notes in particular that:

• The popularity of a website is measured by Alexa along three dimensions: how many people visit a website, how much time is spent at the website and how much content is consumed. It is not based solely on how many people go to a particular website. The time spent on a website and the amount of content that is consumed are also important factors.

• The exact definition of a genealogy website is a surprisingly difficult question. We look at a variety of metrics. The key factor for us is that a website must be primarily oriented towards genealogy and genealogy research. Consequently, you won’t find many national archive websites on the list because these types of websites tend to attract a significant number of visitors unrelated to genealogy.6

The top websites won’t come as a surprise to anyone:,, Find A Grave, and the like can always be expected to lead the pack.

It was terrific to see that two DNA-related websites are also among the top websites: Family Tree DNA and GEDMatch came in at number 14 and number 31, respectively.

And a grand total of six genealogy-related blogs made the list, three from the United States and one each from Australia, Canada and Ireland:

Number 28: My dear friend and prolific writer Dick Eastman with his now-19-year-old Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter.

Number 87: Australia’s Gould Genealogy — “Genealogy and history news and product announcements for Australians”.

Number 89: Thomas MacEntee’s Geneabloggers, “The ultimate site for your genealogy blog.”

Number 97: from John D. Reid, Canada’s Anglo-Celtic Connections, “an independent view of family history resources and developments seen from an Ottawa perspective.”

Number 99: Claire Santry’s Irish Genealogy News.

Let’s see here… one… two… three… four… five…

Hmmmmm… who did I forget?

Oh, yeah.

The second highest-ranked blog, coming in at number 86. Now three years old (officially, as of 1 January), The Legal Genealogist.


  1. Judy G. Russell, “The favor of your vote,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 15 Dec 2014 ( : accessed 19 Jan 2015).
  2. Ibid., “Two years in a row!,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 8 Jan 2015.
  3. Ibid., “The mentors,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 17 Jan 2015.
  4. Promise. We’ll get back to the law and genealogy real soon. Unless of course some other unexpected and really cool honor comes my way. Just sayin’ …
  5. “Top 100 Genealogy Websites of 2015,” GenealogyInTime Magazine ( : accessed 19 Jan 2015).
  6. Ibid.
Posted in General | 26 Comments

You snooze, you lose

It’s that time of year again. Time to set the alarm, warm up the mouse hand and get ready. Because if you don’t move fast at a designated time tomorrow, the 20th of January, you’re going to lose out on one of the best educational opportunities genealogy has to offer.

It’s time for registration for the 2015 Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research (IGHR) at Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama, June 7-12 this year.

I don’t know anyone who’s ever been to IGHR who hasn’t come away thinking it was a wonderful experience. I’ve had the great good fortune to have completed the courses in Advanced Methodology and Evidence Analysis; Writing and Publishing for Genealogists; Researching African-American Ancestors; and Research in the South last year.

I’ll be back at Samford this summer, both learning and teaching (I’m the coordinator for the newly revised Advanced Methodology and Evidence Analysis course). And I hope to see a lot of friends — old and new — during the week.

But I’ll see you there only if you get up early tomorrow and get ready to register.

All IGHR class sizes are limited and REGISTRATION FILLS UP FAST. If you want to go, be prepared to start trying to register right when registration for the class you want opens and to keep trying. Note that Advanced Methodology and Evidence Analysis has prerequisites and all students will be housed off-campus this year.

Here are the registration times:

Opening at 8 a.m. PST, 9 a.m. MST, 10 a.m. CST, 11 a.m. EST:

Course 3: Advanced Methodology & Evidence Analysis
Course 9: Genealogy as a Profession

Opening at 8:30 a.m. PST, 9:30 a.m. MST, 10:30 a.m. CST, 11:30 a.m. EST:

Course 4: Writing & Publishing for Genealogists
Course 6: The Five Civilized Tribes: The Records & Where to Find Them

Opening at 9 a.m. PST, 10 a.m. MST, 11 a.m. CST, noon EST:

Course 8: Research in the South: The Colonies of the South
Course 10: Virginia’s Land & Military Conflicts

Opening at 9:30 a.m. PST, 10:30 a.m. MST, 11:30 a.m. CST, 12:30 p.m. EST:

Course 2: Intermediate Genealogy & Historical Studies
Course 7: Land Records: Using Maps

Opening at 10:00 a.m. PST, 11:00 a.m. MST, noon CST, 1:00 p.m. EST:

Course 1: Methods and Sources
Course 5: Military Records II

The IGHR 101 page has been updated with brand-new video guides on how to register as well as how to submit a course wait list request. There’s a downloadable guide to registration available online so you can understand the process in advance and be ready to go. Fill out the info ahead of time and then copy/paste into the appropriate fields as you go through the registration process.

Much more info is available online at the IGHR website generally, through a special IGHR 101 page, and there’s an online guide What is IGHR? there as well.

So don’t sleep in tomorrow morning. Hope to see you in Birmingham in June!

Posted in General | Leave a comment

Access to results

A question arrived by email a couple of days ago that left The Legal Genealogist simply shaking her head.

“My cousin bought two DNA test kits and asked if I would like to use one,” the reader wrote. “I did so. However, when the tests came back, she would not share my results with me. I understand that she paid for the kit, but do I not have the right to obtain my results? Do I not legally own my DNA?”


Even the fact that this reader has to ask the question just blows my mind.

DNA moleculeYes, dear reader. Yes, you own your DNA. No, you didn’t give it away when you agreed to test at the request of your cousin. And no, there is nothing — nothing — that is right about your cousin refusing to give you access to your results.

We now have working standards for genetic genealogists to consult when it comes to ethical questions like this. Officially announced last week, they’re the result of major efforts by a team of genetic genealogists, geneticists and others with substantial input from the genetic genealogy community.1

Those standards provide, in unequivocal terms, that “Genealogists believe that testers have an inalienable right to their own DNA test results and raw data, even if someone other than the tester purchased the DNA test.”2

There’s no wiggle room there. No room for “well, the results won’t mean anything to my cousin.” No room for “maybe my cousin won’t understand them.” No room even for “maybe my cousin doesn’t really want to know what her results show.”

Let me repeat the ethical standard:

“testers have an inalienable right to their own DNA test results and raw data, even if someone other than the tester purchased the DNA test.”

Now I can understand if the cousin isn’t sure how to go about giving her cousin access to the results.

Depending on what company the DNA test is done with, access can be easier or harder to arrange. AncestryDNA, for example, may require creation of a second account and perhaps even payment of a second access fee in order for a second person to have complete access to all DNA results from the cousin’s test without violating Ancestry’s terms of use about sharing accounts.

At Family Tree DNA, by contrast, it couldn’t be easier: each and every test kit has an individual kit number and an individual password, and giving a cousin access to the cousin’s own test results is simply a matter of giving the cousin that log-in information.

And I can understand if the cousin who paid for the test is concerned that perhaps somehow her own access to the results she paid for could be lost. That can happen if, for example, the cousin who was tested chooses to change the password or to delete a test.

If that happened with a test I’d paid for, I’d hate it. And I’d certainly try to convince my cousin to give me access again or to allow me to arrange to have the test results restored if possible.

But the bottom line here is, the DNA results belong to the cousin whose DNA is being tested, not to the person who paid for the test.

Yes, the cousin who paid for the test may have to work out how to give the cousin whose DNA was tested access to the results.

But there is no question whatsoever — none in any way, shape or form — about the question of whether she should give her cousin access.


  1. See Judy G. Russell, “DNA: good news, bad news,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 11 Jan 2015 ( : accessed 18 Jan 2015).
  2. Paragraph 3, Standards for Obtaining, Using, and Sharing Genetic Genealogy Test Results, “Genetic Genealogy Standards,” ( : accessed 18 Jan 2015).
Posted in DNA | 46 Comments

Thanking UGA and a whole team

Saturday here at The Legal Genealogist is the time to talk about family stories and history.

But occasionally it’s time to record The Legal Genealogist‘s own family story and history.

And today is a time to remember the mentors.

trayGerald Kerrigan was my 11th grade English teacher. It was an advanced English class and he was particularly demanding. Some of the students complained to their parents, the issue was addressed at a PTA meeting, but that teacher stood his ground.

And I learned how to write.

Kenneth W. Michael was the executive editor of a newspaper then known as the Perth Amboy Evening News. I was a cocky teenager without a college degree – and with a writing style Ken described as the most nearly identical to his that he had ever seen.

He gave me my first break. I became a newspaper reporter. And under his tutelage and that of news editor John Curley, I became a better writer.

Jack Smee and Alex Michelini were the editors of the short-lived New Jersey edition of the New York Daily News. Although by that time I had been off in the corporate world, they paved the way for me to come back into journalism.

The Daily News style was short and sassy, Jack and Alex were masters of that craft, and under their guidance I learned to write and have fun.

When I first met Matthew P. Boylan, he was director of the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice. He fed me information as a newspaper reporter; I fed him evidence he could use in his investigations. Later, when he was a senior partner in a New Jersey law firm, he gave me my first legal job – as an investigator for his law firm while I went to law school.

Until the day he died, Matt was my teacher and my friend. From him, I learned to love the law.

The entire faculty and staff at Rutgers Law School has to be included in any mentor list. They were my teachers and later my colleagues during the quarter century that I taught as an adjunct at Rutgers.

And then there are the genealogists.

It was my friend Lynne Fisher of Chicago who convinced me that we were ready to take the Advanced Methodology and Evidence Analysis class known as Course Four at the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. That was the course taught by Elizabeth Shown Mills.

Which is the reason why I am fortunate enough to count Elizabeth as one of my mentors. I wasn’t at all sure I knew what I was doing as a genealogist or that I could ever be good at it. So I will never forget opening the final project paper from that class and seeing one word at the top in Elizabeth’s handwriting: “Superb.”

The following year I took the genealogy writing course taught by Thomas W. Jones at IGHR. And that is how I began to count Tom as one of my mentors.

David McDonald. Claire Bettag. Rick and Pam Sayre. John Phillip Colleta. The list of genealogists from whom I have learned goes on and on.

And the mentor list goes on and on. There are so many people who helped me become a better journalist, a better lawyer, a better genealogist. Every one of them is on my mind today.

Why today?

Because last night was the final banquet for the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy, where Rick Sayre and I had had a wonderful time with the students in our Family History Law Library class, aided by Claire Bettag, David Rencher and F. Warren Bittner as instructors. It was a great week.

Then came the total surprise. The President of the Utah Genealogical Association, Bret Peterson, got up to present the UGA awards and the first one presented was the 2015 Silver Tray Award, given for scholarly contributions to the field of genealogy and family history. Since 1988, it has traditionally been given for publication efforts.

It has gone in the past to people I count as dear friends: Kimberly Powell, Tom Jones, Lou Szucs and others who have contributed so much to the written scholarship of our genealogical community.

And, last night, that award was presented to me.

I am honored.

I am grateful to UGA.

And I am most grateful to my mentors.

In genealogy, we all have the sense that when we laugh, all of our ancestors smile for us, and when we cry, they are all there helping comfort us.

In our lives as genealogists, when we succeed all our mentors share in our success.

Thank you to my mentors.

Posted in General | 61 Comments

The one who was

So yesterday The Legal Genealogist raised the spectre of a housekeeper who wasn’t keeping house at all.

At least not the way you or I might think of the term and the way it might be used here in the 21st century.

Illustration of a Girl Providing Housecleaning ServiceNo, “keeping house” in England or in colonial America was the act by a merchant or trader of hiding away behind the closed doors of his house to avoid having to answer to his creditors. It was an act of bankruptcy “committed when a trader absents himself from his place of business and retires to his private residence to evade the importunity of creditors.”1

So when we as genealogists run across a reference to keeping house in an old court record from England or colonial America, we have to think about a debtor who can’t pay his bills.

But that’s not the only way the term was ever used and, almost immediately after the post went live, reader LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson wondered about the way the term was used in an entirely different set of records we use as genealogists all the time.

“What about the phrase ‘Keeping house’ in the context of an 1870 census enumeration of a Black woman?” she asked. “Did it mean she was a ‘housewife,’ as we think of the word or that she was a domestic of some sort?”

Great question, and exactly the reason why it’s so important to understand the way the legal lingo was being used at a particular place and time.

And we’re very lucky that it’s easy to find out just what the term meant in the context of the 1870 census — because we can read the exact instructions that were given to the census takers.

In 2002, Jason Gauthier of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Economics and Statistics Administration produced one of the most singularly useful publications a genealogist can ever have in a toolkit. It’s now available as a downloadable PDF file, directly from the U.S. Census Bureau website, and it’s called Measuring America: The Decennial Census from 1790 to 2000.2

What makes this 148-page document so valuable is that it sets out, in detail, exactly what the census takers were told to do for each and every U.S. census from the first census in 1790 all the way up to the census of 2000.

Sure, we all know that the enumerator might not have done what he was supposed to do — but knowing what it was that he was supposed to do is often a real help in understanding the records.

And, in 1870, here’s what the instructions told the enumerator to do in entering the occupation of women on that set of census returns:

The term “housekeeper” will be reserved for such persons as receive distinct wages or salary for the service. Women keeping house for their own families or for themselves, without any other gainful occupation, will be entered as “keeping house.” Grown daughters assisting them will be reported without occupation.3

So where keeping house in colonial court records wasn’t at all what a housekeeper did, it really is what a housekeeper did in the context of the 1870 census.


  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 677, “keeping house.” See generally Judy G. Russell, “The housekeeper,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 15 Jan 2015 ( : accessed 16 Jan 2015).
  2. Jason G. Gauthier, Measuring America: The Decennial Census from 1790 to 2000 (Washington, D.C. : U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, U.S. Census Bureau, 2002); PDF download, U.S. Census Bureau ( : accessed 15 Jan 2015).
  3. Ibid., PDF at 16.
Posted in Legal definitions | 4 Comments