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In my family we have a DNA contradiction – two cousins (at about the 4th cousin level) took a Y-DNA test, but did not match and had two completely different haplogroups.

Since then, I have traced living cousins with the same surname – the only ones left living that I am aware of – and I would love to pay to have them tested to see if we can figure out where the non-paternity event (NPE) or other event happened (i.e. this new cousin could help us determine which line the NPE occurred in depending on which cousin he matches).

Does anyone have a sample letter, or know the best way to go about asking a distant cousin for DNA?

I have their address and am planning to write a letter, but I can't imagine receiving such a letter, so I am not quite sure how to ask without scaring them off.

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I battled with how to approach this when I first set out on my DNA testing 'saga' about two years ago and have learned a few things over now 60 plus completed kits that I manage across multiple family lines over the last 2 years.

1) Form letters = Failure; I cannot emphasize this enough. Just like I don't like getting them, people are irritated by them and blow them off as SPAM. Much like those mass mailings you get from GEDMATCH.com matches who just used an automated mailer to all of their matches with nothing about themselves... the following points go to not making helping you make it not a form letter.

2) Share something about yourself, break down that barrier by exposing and sharing. It sets a good precedent that you are just not looking to 'take'.

3) Personalize correspondence; learn something about them and let them know how you found them. Some people get defensive if you think you have been researching or stalking them and so be open.

4) Be crystal clear on your intent, project goals, and how you will treat the information and offer to give them full access to the test results once the results are complete.

5) Share information about the research you have done so far; especially how you think you are related.

6) Inform them and let them know exactly what tests you intend to perform and how it will be used. I am straight forward with what I am wanting from them usually in initial contact and ALWAYS pair it with what I am offering in terms of information and collaboration. Information and collaboration as noted above I have found to be one of my strongest motivators for people.

7) Enable them to do the test themselves by inform them how they to can do the tests themselves and what service you will be using (IMPORTANT: Keep this consistent) This both allows them to checkout the service you will be using as well as do it themselves which I have had several now do. It takes them longer usually but they do usually it. Do not forget to ask if they have already tested.

8) Diverse Communication: Use multiple forms of communication to establish contact, sometimes you need to resort to cold calling from the white pages them or in at least one 'stopping by' (see next bullet). I know multiple people I am in contact do not do email or Facebook and require a phone call. I also used to loath Facebook but found it to be great tool for genealogical research / stalking of tracking people down and collecting basic information. Sometimes it is not them that you can get in contact with.. but their children, uncle, or acquaintance that is posting about genealogy on Facebook that could break the ice with them.

9) Get the test into their hands; I like using FamilyTreeDNA and pre-purchasing 5-10 kits ahead of time for $12 bucks a pop and then carrying them with me when I travel or including them with letters to those that do not respond to electronic communication. Then if they send them in you then pay for the test vs. pre-purchasing tests that never get sent in.

10) Collaboration: Stay in communication and follow-up with them; if you fail to do this regularly they may not send in the test, talk to someone else who needs to assist, or provide critical information to help fill in the paperwork trail. This also builds collaboration.. a private Facebook group is an easy way to keep in contact with multiple individuals.

11) Be Accepting of No and do not be pushy. There are a lot of different reasons people say 'No' and you need to be accepting of it and do not be pushy. Some of my contacts I had to follow-up every couple of months (not usually weeks) and remind them.. one took about a year and a half and when they did finally send in their kit it was worth its weight in gold.

The common ones I run into are A) I have not interest in genealogy and do not care. This one I can usually over time tactfully talk them out of by saying others care and you would be helping them. B) Privacy; this likely includes simple privacy and possibly concerns about linking to crimes or children they may or may not be aware exist. C) They simply do not want to know, they may have suspected there family line is not as what it has been described and they are content not know and do not want to 'rock the boat'.

11) Bonus: Offer an autosomal DNA test to their spouse or split the cost with them as an incentive to assist in their own genealogical research.

12) Bonus: Focus on getting matches you find on different sites to transfer to a central site or sites. I push for FamilyTreeDNA and GEDMatch and offer to pay the transfer fee.

Cautionary Advise:

  1. I would advise in every way though against telling them how much it will cost you or talk about it unless they ask. This will put people off; especially for those with a conscience that can't 'process' someone willing to spend that amount of money on them.

  2. I have heard, but not personally experienced, is I have heard of people requesting additional financial compensation for performing the test (You are already forking up a couple hundred dollars right, so what is a bit more). I have not paid someone to take a test to date, and I would strongly caution against this and only even consider it if you are very confident it is your only option. Then only agree to pay once they have delivered the results to the lab; if not when the results are posted showing they just didn't have some random person take it in there stead.

The strategy above statistically over time has worked VERY well for me. Of the 60 some kits I manage some they did the tests with me having to ask, but of those I have asked I currently only have 2 'no' responses and 4 'difficult' to establish contact or get an answer out of one way or another but of those 2 I have established contact with their family member so I consider 'in-process'; so I believe this is about an 80-90% success rate.

All-in-all it is very much a test of patience and expensive proposition but I have learned so much from DNA testing when combined with other information it has been personally worth it to myself.

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  • Thank you so much for the excellent advice! Did you broach the topic at the initial contact, or did you work your way up to it? Can I ask roughly what your success rate has been? – Hammy May 13 '16 at 8:39
  • @Hammy I revised several portions of my answer and also added new content to include these points. The SE way of saying "THANKS" is to up vote arrow on any answers that are useful to you (sometimes multiple) and then clicking the Accept Checkbox as the most useful. – CRSouser May 13 '16 at 13:53
  • I haven't given you well deserved thanks for this answer. I had three siblings who I desperately needed to get, but who had no idea that my branch of the family existed. Some months ago, following the guidance of your answer above, I sent out a letter to one. Now, many months later, I'm going through the fascinating results of all three siblings. Again, thank you for the above guidance! – Peter_Chamdo4Ever Jul 26 '17 at 9:43
  • Also, don't forget to tell them how the test is done -- with saliva or a cheek swab. I had one person who was reluctant because she thought it involved blood. – Jamie Cox Apr 19 '19 at 12:51
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Unless you find a living cousin who shares your interest in family history, and in DNA tracing, your efforts may be wasted. Those who have no particular interest in family history are unlikely to pony up the cost of a DNA test. Even if you offered to pay for it, just the effort of submitting the test may be more than they're willing to deal with.

Also, some people are likely to be suspicious of a distant cousin asking for DNA samples (people can fabricate truly remarkable scenarios in their heads regarding the utilization of such a sample). Some people just don't want to know if there's a "scandal" in their family tree, or are afraid the sample will end up in the hands of law enforcement, etc.

Your best bet is to first find one or more cousins in that family who already have an interest in genealogy - don't even mention DNA in your initial contact. Find at least one who either already has a tree on one of the major websites, or is enthusiastic about starting one. Use your initial contact(s) to introduce yourself to other members of their family.

Be patient - expect this process to take years. You'll need to cultivate your cousin contacts and earn their trust before asking for anything from them that might cause them concern.

Having built that trust, you can then maybe raise the subject of DNA samples to the more enthusiastic among them. Once you've gotten your first sample in that line, you may be able to use it to motivate others in that line to submit as well (but bear in mind that you still may need to shoulder most of the cost).

Although it may seem deceptive, you may not want to mention the possibility of NPEs until you have enough samples in hand to make that determination (see above).

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  • Thank you so much for your thoughtful answer. The person I plan to start with has done an autosomal test, so she may be willing to eventually discuss a Y-DNA with her brothers. I'll do you as suggest and start slow and work my way up :) – Hammy May 11 '16 at 9:00
  • My statement that "Those who have no particular interest in family history are unlikely to pony up the cost of a DNA test" has turned out to be wildly incorrect - there actually seem to be many people who are willing to pay for a DNA test purely for the "ethnicity estimate", or so it appears from the many (non-orphans) who have submitted such samples and made no effort to add or build a corresponding family tree. – cleaverkin Mar 20 '19 at 21:43
  • As an update too, they did end up doing a Y-DNA test after I wrote to them, and it proved the relationship between their line and mine, so I was able to narrow done where the NPE occurred in the other line that did not match us. – Hammy Mar 22 '19 at 8:08

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