Tracing one's family tree can be fun, exciting, and eye-opening—and websites like Ancestry.com make it easier than ever to do so. We see the commercials about on-demand DNA testing that yield sometimes surprising results about people's ethnic roots, etc. But if you decide to take the plunge, be prepared to get more information than you bargained for. As it turns out, this practice can also reveal unexpected connections, long-lost relatives, and family secrets like affairs, adoptions, and cover-ups—all of which may cause high levels of drama and stress.
Take, for example, the New York woman who ordered a DNA kit to see how much Native American blood she had to qualify for school scholarships. When the results came back indicating she was 50 percent Italian, she was dumbfounded and dismayed—and a conversation with her estranged mother resulted in vehement denials of any Italian lineage. Upon further investigation, the woman discovered the man she grew up identifying as her biological father was not related to her at all. Her biological father? Her mother's Italian high school prom date.
The Legal Consequences of DNA Testing
Sometimes, the fallout in a family over these revelations can have emotional and legal fallout. In another instance, a man who took a genetic test through 23andMe.com discovered an unknown grandfather—and by extension, his father discovered a connection with an unknown father. The revelation caused a family-wide blowup that resulted in the divorce of the man's parents and his father's shunning.
These stories are far from isolated. Through genetic testing now available online, participants frequently discover previously unknown cousins, siblings (one adopted man found nearly a dozen brothers and sisters!), fathers, mothers, and even offspring they never knew about. While these revelations sometimes lead to happy reunions, they can also dig up long-buried secrets that create emotional upheaval and legal consequences like separation, divorce, and severed family connections.
Child Support Implications
Consider a 2007 case in Florida. Sixteen months after his divorce, Richard Parker discovered that his three-year-old son wasn't his biological child through a DNA test. Parker questioned his responsibility for child support, taking his case to the Florida Supreme Court. The court ordered that he continue child support payments, finding that the policy considerations favored protecting the child's best interests over the interests of the parent defrauded by his wife. But it's also worth considering whether an unknowing parent, unveiled by genetic testing, could end up in court with a pending child support case.
Moreover, not everyone wants to have old secrets show up on their doorstep, as Oregon mother Danielle Teuscher discovered after signing her entire family up for genetic testing. She conceived her daughter with donated sperm, and she was curious about her daughter's donor. The 23&Me website connected her directly to her daughter's biological paternal grandmother. But when she contacted her, the woman sent her a curt reply. Teuscher then received a cease and desist letter from the donor sperm clinic threatening $20,000 in penalties if she continued to try to contact the donor.
These family law issues don't have easy answers. But it seems likely that at-home DNA testing will continue to wreak legal havoc, in some cases leading to divorce and family court, for families with secrets. For the time being, the best we can do is go into the process with our eyes open. If you choose to use an ancestry website for genetic testing, be prepared for what you might be getting into.