I am trying to determine the best approach to reach out to a group of people that may be related to my immediate family but these people could be surprised by the news.

After my grandparent's death, my mother discovered that her father was not her biological father. The only record we have is the biological father's name listed as the father on my mother's birth certificate. There are other details but that information is beyond the scope of this question.

The biological father passed away in 2002. I know through research that he had 5 children and we believe 4 are still alive. I have what we believe to be their physical addresses and would like to reach out to them, not for any monetary reason, but for information about the man only.

I know this could be quite a shock to them to learn after 50 years that they might have a sister and other family they had no idea about. For that matter the biological father might not have even known since he was in the army during this time and may have gone overseas before the pregnancy was known.

So the question is... Do I write and send a certified letter to each of the surviving children? Do I hire a third party... say a lawyer... to be the intermediary and don't contact them directly? Any other suggestions?

I just wanted to pose this question to this group and see what opinions others might have on this approach.

Thank you

  • 1
    Welcome to G&FH.SE! Thank you for respecting our guidelines about not posting identifying details for people born within the last 100 years -- see What topics can I ask about here?. There are some brief comments that are relevant to your question in the answers to this earlier question: genealogy.stackexchange.com/q/3507/1006
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 17:19
  • My apologies, I didn't think I posted any identifying details about my situation. My question is generic in nature. How would others reach out to strangers that could be relatives from an illegitimate birth?
    – TK51508
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 8:25
  • 2
    TK51508 -- you didn't publish any identifying details, which was why @JanMurphy thanked you.
    – user104
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 8:43
  • 2
    No need to apologize -- you followed our guidelines! My comment was to say 'well done' and to alert other new users to the policy so they wouldn't ask you to add details.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 16:15

2 Answers 2


There is no single best way to do this but in my research I have come across some similar situations including for some close family as well as had people reach out to me trying to establish a connection to someone who 'may' be related to me.

It is not clear exactly what you are hoping to gain from making the connection, and in whatever approach you take I would be clear and decisive on that. Such as genealogical purposes (wanting to know), medical reasons, or just learning about 'them' as their won't be any shared experiences with those individuals. If they were conceived while in a relationship with someone else, such as their mother, that could also cause damage they do not want to deal with and a third party such as a cousin may be a better approach (see below). In any initial contact I would make sure your intentions are clear.

A close family member of mine was in a similar situation you described and wrote several letters and eventually found a receptive sibling. Though the rest of the siblings and other family members reject the claim and want nothing to do with them. Neither has asked for genetic testing to prove it either and the relationship after initial contact is casual at best.

What you have suggested is a direct approach of having already identified the individual and crossed your T's and dotted your i's so you are definitively sure you have the correct person. A birth certificate is a lead but not definitive information in all cases (rules for what goes on a birth certificate vary by state). So part of my response is are you sure if it says Mark Johnson (made up name) you have the correct Mark Johnson, as if you approach them without definitive proof they either may blow you off and/or think you are wanting something from them.

I would strongly advise against the lawyer or anything official like a certified letter for initial contact and overall suggest starting out with a casual approach. As if you come on too strong some may even take it as you stalking them if you already know so much about them but they know nothing about you and you then may need a lawyer to address their response. If you send a couple letters over a course of several months and not sure if they are reaching them I would then maybe resort to a certified letter. You could also try social media but having to mutually following someone first to send them a message they will actually see (like on LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter) this may not work.

A round about genealogical approach using DNA testing which can help add evidence to the claim, but also lighten the approach from the direct approach.. As one thing to consider is the birth certificate may even be wrong or have details that are not quite correct. This is a similar approach I am taking due primarily to records not being available for my grandfather who did not know his mother and the name on the birth certificate has not yet panned out yet and it is known her named changed after his birth.

So my hope is through Autosomal DNA (i.e. AncestryDNA / FamilyTreeDNA.com Family Finder / 23andMe.com) combined with genealogy document of the rest of the tree I can narrow down those VERY CLOSE matches. It adds a bit of innocent curiosity to it and if you are doing it vs. your mother may add some neutrality to it. The person you make contact with too may not end up being one of those siblings but a close cousin and they can make the initial contact on your behalf.

The catch with my round about approach is that someone in the immediate family needs to have tested and you need to understand your results as well as it takes time, something you may not have.

I also administer the DNA results for several individuals Autosomal results at this point and frequently get contacted by individuals in the same situation you described, but where they do not understand nor flush out their results and are contacting me looking for a relative or their birth parents for a 1944 birth when they are 5th-8th cousins for example with a very generic "we are related, tell me about yourself" message.

You can further refine your mother's results / matches if you and your mother get tested and then understand your results and approach your DNA matches with a message something like the following:

"I am seeking information about my mother's father, but name is not definitively known but is believed to have Mark Johnson (made up name) based on other information I found, who was a US Army Servicemen stationed in Random Military Base from June 1944 to August 1945. I see we are considered 2nd cousins and I cannot you anywhere in my family tree. Do know if this person exists in your family tree or can you tell me about any family members who might have been in this area at that time?"


Rather than a lawyer, which might give the wrong impression, I would suggest you look for someone who provides counselling and intermediary services for adoption reunions.

While your family's case is not technically one of adoption, such a person will be used to handling similar circumstances - where the birth mother has passed away and the surviving siblings don't know that there was an adopted child, for example.

It may also be best for your mother to have counselling, as making contact can be emotionally tough - even if it goes well, and it may not.

If you do decide to make contact on your own, a letter is generally considered the best method as it gives people the time to think about whether they want to get in contact. But include other ways of contacting you (e.g. email) in the letter in case they prefer that.

Example contents: explain what you know about his whereabouts during WWII, say that you believe you are related (may be best to avoid specifics of how) and you're looking for information on his later life, and include a photo of yourself and your mother.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.