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  • Richard Wenzel

Falling from the Family Tree

You may discover information about yourself that you, as well as your family, did not anticipate….As a user, you take responsibility for all possible consequences that could result from the use of these Services.

Section 5, Family Tree DNA, Terms of Service


Submit a DNA test? Did the results surprise you? In a bad way? For example, you learned that your sibling is, unexpectedly, a half-sibling? Hence one of you has a different father - genetically speaking – than the father you have known your whole life. And an uneasy discussion with your mother looms. (note – while various DNA-surprise results can occur, a surprise father seems most common)


With the essence of your existence now shattered, where can you turn for help, support, information, or understanding? Family Tree DNA? As their disclaimer clearly states, “….you take responsibility for all possible consequences…..” In other words, you are on your own!

Family Tree DNA can do better! They need to do better!


To gain insight into what support Family Tree DNA actually offers, I recently called them since they are the company that my father and I used for testing. Unlike most callers, I had a significant advantage; our DNA results were posted more than a year ago, thus I have had time to process the lack of a DNA match with my father, as well as to gain pertinent knowledge. Upon their representative answering my call, I explained that I was their customer, did not match with my father, who had also tested with the company, and asked what resources, advice, support or other items they offer to cope with such unexpected, potentially devastating results?


I was not impressed with their performance.


The first portion of the phone call lasted about 15 minutes, during which the representative struck me as hesitant and cautious, unsure how to respond. She repeatedly explained that she was attempting to “connect you to a supervisor”. She admitted that other customers have called about lack-of-an-expected-match scenarios. Yet her primary response was a lot of awkward silence, apparently because she was searching for help on her end of the call. Worse, at one point she said that her supervisor had just reviewed our records and was telling her that my father and I WERE a match!


WHAT???!!!! Are you kidding me!


Luckily for them, and me, I knew conclusively that the man I know as my father is NOT my biological father; I identified my biological father, as well as several previously unknown half-siblings, during the past year. Had I not known this information, this phone call could have horribly crumbled after her statement. Ultimately, she did transfer me, unfortunately not to a supervisor but back into the same phone triage hell that began my phone call, with an automated voice saying “press 1 for [this], press 2 for [that]”, and so forth.


Another representative finally answered. I again explained my situation. Caution and uncertainty were again palatable in her voice. As previously, her two predominant responses were awkward silence or assurances that I would soon be connected to a supervisor. At one point, she out of the blue and rather inelegantly stated “he’s still you father, this does not change your relationship”. She was about to say more, but I interrupted and asked whether she was offering her opinion or reading a Family Tree response? She said she was reading a written response that, evidently, she had finally found. I told her the response was NOT helpful and to not to read anymore; by her tone, she seemed to tacitly agree my assessment. Like the first representative, she admitted that other customers have called about lack of expected DNA matches such as mine.


Finally, I was connected to a supervisor. For the third time I explained my situation and asked what support Family Tree offered? He conceded that Family Tree does not offer counseling or similar services, affirmed their primary business purpose was to run the DNA tests and post the results, and agreed with my assertion that customers were, for all practical purposes, on their own to cope with unexpected results. He was, however, sympathetic to the wreckage inherent to situations such as mine and seemed to agree that more needed to be done, even if he could not explicitly state so in his role as an employee. He also confirmed having had numerous prior conversations with other customers about unexpected, lack-of-DNA-match results.


I mentioned the availability of various resources – created by NPEs – and he admitted being unaware of them. I then suggested that Family Tree DNA should inform their customers of these resources. He agreed such actions could be helpful, commenting that he has worked at Family Tree DNA for a decade, yet I was the first customer to suggest adding such resources.

Silence was again prevalent during our conversation, but at least he explained his silence was due to his prolific note taking, assuring me that my comments would be sent "to the right people" within the company who could act upon my suggestions. Importantly, he clarified that my father and I did NOT match per their results.


So, what-if-anything will result from my nearly hour-long phone call? Who knows, only time will tell, but I intend to persist.


Family Tree DNA should learn from their competitors. For example, regarding the lack of an expected DNA match, Ancestry.com has this in their website’s Support Section:


What now?

We understand that discovering you are not related to someone in the way you thought, or finding unexpected close relatives, can be challenging. Know that you are not alone. We encourage you to seek the help you need to process these results. We have provided resources below that may be helpful to you as you navigate your discovery.

Learn more about unexpected results here.


Ancestry is not affiliated or associated with any of the support resources below.

- Psychology Today

- NPE (Not Parent Expected) Friends Fellowship

- Donor Sibling Registry


I think more resources should be listed, but I give Ancestry.com credit for a good start.


23andMe.com has a useful, extensive Navigating Unexpected Relationships section that even includes several customers’ testimonials.

Family Tree DNA, you have an opportunity for improvements!

Finally, a question for anyone reading this blog: what do you believe are the responsibilities – if any – that DNA test companies have to assist customers through unexpected DNA results?


To be continued.

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