Looking among the living for clues to your past

When we think of genealogical research, most of us typically focus on finding past records, locating deceased relatives and making sense of historical documents.  But family historians often overlook an important resource in their quest: living relatives.  Generally, research begins with one’s immediate relatives, namely parents, and moves progressively backwards to previous generations.  In cases where you confront an obstacle in tracing your history, it can be enormously helpful to identify and investigate previously unknown living relatives or take a detour from the traditional trajectory of familial lineage and research an ancestor’s sibling’s descendants.  Locating living family members usually involves techniques similar to the ones you utilize when finding deceased relatives.  Whether relatives have lost contact with one another because of divorce, adoption, geographical separation, familial conflict, or are simply unaware of the existence of particular family members, the suggestions below may assist you in reconnecting with living relatives or finding previously unknown relatives and perhaps shed light on the gaps in your research.

Published family histories.  Histories of a particular family are sometimes published and can be found in a public library, often in the area where your ancestors lived.  Larger libraries that maintain extensive family history collections are the Library of Congress and the Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  Your local Family History Center will give you access to the Family History Library catalogue and many of the genealogy books they house are available on microfilm.  Genealogy lending libraries also store family histories and will loan these books through the mail for a nominal charge.

Death certificates and newspaper obituaries.  The names of living relatives are often included in the vital records of those who are deceased.  In particular, a death certificate lists the name of the informant or contact, who is often an adult child of the deceased.  Other information typically found in the death certificate includes the names of the deceased’s children and grandchildren, location of burial, religious affiliation and profession.  Similarly, obituaries in newspapers announcing the death will list pertinent information on surviving relatives.  Searching for these obituaries, requesting the names of living descendants from the funeral home and contacting the cemetery and monument company for information regarding who purchased the burial plot and grave marker can provide clues as to the whereabouts and identities of living relatives.

Probate records.  Probate records are generated in the course of disposing of a deceased’s property and often include an individual’s last will and testament.  Probate documents indicate the names of surviving relatives and their relationships with the deceased. These records can be found in the county where the deceased lived.  In addition, these documents can lead to the discovery of land records.  Land records are wonderful resources for establishing proof of heirship or providing the maiden name of a married woman, which can trigger a concurrent search for living relatives from a different familial line.

Discovering or establishing ties with living relatives can be a tremendous asset in your genealogical journey.  Even more so, it can be a path toward re-connecting for future generations of the family.


Louisa Kalish

Louisa Kalish is a lawyer and a freelance writer for online legal and general interest publications. She became interested in genealogy during a brief stint in pro bono family law. While not engaged in her writing and legal pursuits, she is an active volunteer in several charitable organizations and heads the parenting organization at her children's school. She resides in New Jersey with her husband and three children.

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