Findmypast would like to thank Your Family Tree magazine for kindly contributing this article.

Tracing Living Relatives - an introduction

More than bringing your family history to life, descendant tracing can connect you with relatives worldwide and provide a lifetime of new cousins to discover....

Ask most people about genealogy and they will usually reply that it is "the history of your family", "finding out about your ancestors", or "searching historical records". These are all part of what makes family history interesting, but research can go in more than one direction.

Looking at your family history research as three-dimensional, rather than just tracing back in time, can be fascinating, rewarding and sometimes life-changing. Many living relatives, most of whom you have never met, all form part of your extended family. One ancestor in the distant past may have descendants throughout the globe, all with a shared history and genetic heritage.

Descending lines on your family tree

You may have a favourite ancestor. He or she may be at the top of your family tree or have had a particularly interesting life, but before you start it"s useful to consider a few things. First of all, are you sure this person is your ancestor?

Check and double check all of the links and records, relying as far as possible on original sources. Never take someone else"s research as fact until you have checked all the details yourself, or had them checked by a trusted researcher.

If possible, choose an ancestor with a large family. If one line dies out there will be other options to pursue. If you have a choice of several ancestors, selecting one with an uncommon surname may make things easier. Only choose an ancestor who lived before the mid-1800s if you can be sure that records for the family are good and the line can be proven.

Tracing a family line forward uses the same sources of information as conventional genealogy, except that what you are looking for is a record for a relative who may still be living.

You will need to connect life events and use other available resources to move toward the present day. Working forward through successive generations using the information found on each record will eventually lead you to a living person in your extended family.

Let"s take a look at each kind of record resource, and how you can use it for forward-looking family research.

Parish registers

If your chosen ancestor lived before civil registration (compulsory state registration of life events) began, church and parish records will be your main source of information. Baptism, marriage and burial records begin in the mid-16th century, although early records for your family may not survive.

Information from parish registers in England and Wales varies between dates and geographical areas. Names were often spelled phonetically and, before the 1730s, entries may be written in Latin.

When working with records from this period it is important to search original sources, not just indexes and transcriptions.

Make sure that information about members of the same family matches - name, parish, occupation, age if given, parents, spouses and children.

It was not unusual for several families with the same surname, sharing many of the same Christian names, to be living in the same parish.

Parish Registers – England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland

In England and Wales the majority of parish registers can be found at local record offices, with indexes often available in public libraries and on the Internet.

In Scotland, parish registers include:

Banns and marriages
Deaths and burials.

However, the surviving collection of registers is far from complete.

The General Register Office for Scotland holds registers centrally in Edinburgh and older records can be accessed online.

Church of Ireland parish registers were destroyed by fire in 1922.

More information about what records survive can be obtained from the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland in Belfast and the National Archives of Ireland in Dublin.

The International Genealogical Index (IGI) is an index compiled by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the USA. Many of the parishes in the British Isles have been indexed, but it is not a complete list.

There are separate indexes, arranged by county, for England, Wales and Scotland. The remainder of the British Isles “the Channel Islands, Isle of Man and Ireland " are in one group (not arranged by county).

The list of names shows events such as baptisms, marriages, but only a few burials, the parish where the event took place and the date of the event, this information having been extracted from Parish Registers.

Most of the records are for the period up to 1837 but there are some later entries from other sources, often submitted by family members.

The IGI on microfiche is available at most record offices and main public libraries. There is also a CD-ROM version and the indexes are searchable on FamilySearch. The IGI should always be used as a finding aid only, and any information found must be checked against the original source.

Birth, marriage and death certificates

Civil registration started for England and Wales in July 1837, when the General Register Office (GRO) began recording life events.

Yet, until the 1870s, when birth registration rules changed, many parents did not officially register the birth of their child.

Scottish civil registration began in 1855 and in Ireland it was 1864 for births and deaths and 1845 for marriages. One important date for England and Wales records that helps a great deal when tracing forward is the introduction of the mother"s maiden name in the index of births. This started in the third quarter of 1911 and is especially useful when dealing with a fairly common surname.

Imagine you have the marriage certificate of George Jones and Emma Britton who were married in Bristol in 1913. You now have two ways "place and mother"s maiden surname" in which to narrow down all of the Jones children born in the years following their marriage.

Starting in the quarter following the marriage, search the GRO indexes for Jones births noting carefully any entries where the mother"s maiden name is Britton.

If the district where they married or where either party lived at the time of the marriage also matches, there"s a good chance that these entries relate to children of this couple. In most cases you will need to buy the certificate to check that the index entry relates to your family.

Bear in mind that although some are lucky to have ancestors who stayed in the same area for generations, many did move around the country. If you draw a blank after a thorough search covering all possible dates, try records for other parts of the British Isles. Information on certificates will give you the links to trace your family forward to the present generation.

Birth certificates should give the full names of both parents (where the parents were married) and the maiden name of the mother, linking this to the marriage of the parents. When the child marries, the age and father"s name should be consistent with his or her birth.

The names of witnesses can sometimes further confirm family connections - a maternal relative may match the mother"s maiden surname. A son or daughter often registers their parent"s death and this will give the name by which they were known and their address at the time. 


Census records began in 1801 and were taken every 10 years, but very few returns before 1841 survive. There is a 100-year closure on personal information from the returns. The most recent available census, therefore, is the 1911 census.

Census returns for England and Wales for 1841-1911 can be viewed on, as well as transcriptions of the 1841-1901 Scottish censuses.

Search the census

Many Irish census returns do not survive and 1901 is now the only complete census available. This is kept at the National Archives for Ireland in Dublin.

Now that the 1911 census is available, finding ancestors here may mean that you are just one generation away from a living relative.

The facility to search by name on the census can lead you to a family address immediately, even if your ancestors moved around the country. Many local areas have their own printed name indexes for other years.

If possible, it is always a good idea to verify information from the census by purchasing certificates or checking original parish register entries.

Our ancestors were not always truthful when the census enumerator called, especially if the domestic arrangements did not conform to social expectations of the time. Ladies were also known to knock a year or two off their age.


It is only after a person has died and the will has been "proved" that they are indexed and made available for public consultation.

The existence of a will would confirm a person"s death, particularly if, for any reason, there was no death entry on the General Register Index (eg, the person may have died outside the country). A will can confirm the immediate family members of the deceased, give details of relationships and sometimes give addresses.

The Index to Wills and Administrations is arranged alphabetically by name for each year. The information given is name, address, date of death, date and place of probate and the value of the estate. Earlier indexes (pre-1970s) also give the name of the executors. Letters of Administration, also known as Admons, are also included in the indexes.

When someone has died without leaving a will, letters of administration are often granted to the next of kin, so that they may administer the estate. Admons in themselves can be valuable, proving a connection and giving the address of the person granted the administration of the estate.

The Index to Wills (England and Wales) from 1858 is currently held at The Principal Probate Registry in London. Applications to order a copy of a will proved in England and Wales can be made in person to the London office, or by post to the York Probate Sub-Registry.

Postal applications include a two-year search, and copies of the will and grant of probate.

Copies of the Index are also available at District Probate Registries throughout the country. Contact the Principal Registry in London for details of your nearest office. A microfiche index up to 1943 is held in many record offices and main public libraries.

Wills proved in England and Wales before 1858 were administered by church courts, according to the local diocese. Pre-1858 wills are often located in local county record offices.

There is a searchable online index for wills proved in Scotland from 1513 to 1901 and you can purchase the digital images. The original wills, and those proved up until 1992 are held at the National Archives for Scotland. Indexes for Scottish wills from 1902 are available at New Register House, Edinburgh and larger Public Libraries and Archives.

The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland holds all wills proved in Northern Ireland from 1900 to 1994 and original probate records can be viewed here. They also have indexes to wills from 1858-1984.

Almost all original wills proved before 1900 were destroyed in a fire in Dublin in 1922. However, local registries kept copies of many wills and these have been microfilmed.

Before 1858, probate was administered by the district courts of the Church of Ireland and some indexes are available. Copies of proved wills from 1858 are held at the National Archives for Ireland in Dublin.

Indexes cover the whole of Ireland up to 1917 and the Republic of Ireland from 1918.

Directories and registers

Trade directories are an often overlooked and sometimes invaluable resource for family history researchers. Current directories for many trades and professions can be consulted at main reference libraries.

The Directory of British Associations, published regularly by CBD Research and available in most main public libraries, contains hundreds of entries for trade and general interest organisations in the UK, together with contact details.

Even if the records of the organisation are confidential, they may be willing to forward a letter to your relative.

On findmypast, you can search records of UK electoral registers 2002-2013 and UK Companies House Directors 2002-2013.

The electoral registers contain the names and addresses of most UK citizens over the age of 18. The Companies House Directors records comprise registers of UK directors whose companies are registered with Companies House.

Street directories have not been published since they became unprofitable in the mid-1970s, although London street directories continued into the 1980s, and older editions can be consulted in record offices.

Historical electoral registers can usually be found at the record office or main public library for the area.

Other research

By far the best kind of relatives to find are those who are also interested in family history.

Tracing descendants of ancestors or those sharing your family name through family history publications, Internet groups and mailing lists sometimes results in an instant response and maybe lots of information to add to your own research.

Joining the Family History Society for an area where your ancestors lived may prove invaluable and there might also be descendents of your ancestors who are also members.

Even if you are not a member of a particular society, they will very often be happy to print an appeal in their magazine for information or family members.

The Genealogical Research Directory is a book listing surnames that are being researched by family historians throughout the world, with codes to show the location of the ancestors that members are searching.

Published annually in Australia with agents in several countries including the UK, it is now also available on CD-ROM.

Making an approach

When you have identified a possible living person, what is the best way to make an approach? Here are some guidelines that may help.

It"s not a good idea to telephone in the first instance saying "Hi I am your third cousin once removed". They are likely to hang up. Similarly, turning up at the person"s address may be viewed as pushy and arouse suspicion.

If sending an e-mail, always include your home address and telephone number and ask politely if the recipient would acknowledge receipt, even if they have no connection or are not interested.

The best way to make an approach is by letter. Here you can explain in detail why you want to make contact, how you believe you are related and what research you have done so far.

Enclosing a family tree chart and maybe a photograph will make it all the more interesting and increase the chances of receiving a response. Always send a stamped addressed envelope when writing to possible relatives.

Once you have posted a letter, be patient. It may take up to several weeks for your relative to read through your information, talk to other family members, decide what to do, draft a reply and get it in the post. If things go well, a visit or meeting may eventually be arranged - see "Meet up", below.

It is a fact, however, that there are some people who have absolutely no interest in family history and may be indifferent or even hostile if you attempt to make contact. It is best not to pursue any relationship in this case, just to supply your contact details and hope that they may change their mind at a later date.

Once contact is established and the relationship confirmed, you can share as much information about your common ancestors as you have and ask any specific questions about your relative"s immediate and extended family.

If your contact is by e-mail you can send scanned photographs, family tree charts and links to relevant websites. Copies of certificates, original parish register entries and other significant documents can cut down on expense and research time for both relatives.

Many people now use computers to store their family history information and most programmes have the facility to create a GEDCOM file. GEDCOM (an acronym for Genealogical Data Communication) is the universal format for family data. When using GEDCOM, information from your family tree can be shared easily as different software programmes can read and display it.

Are we related?

We all know that the brother of your parent is your uncle and that the child of your uncle is your first cousin, but what about the grandchild of your great-grandmother\"s sister?

They would be your third cousin once removed ascending It's interesting to see how you connect with someone in your family tree, and to work out exactly what your relationship is - the chart above will help, although relationships may be more distant than those illustrated.

In practice, referring to someone as "my third cousin twice removed" can become a little cumbersome, so many prefer to say "distant cousin" after the novelty wears off!

Just as tracing your family history can seem infinite if every line is explored, living relatives with whom we share a common ancestor may number thousands.

Widening horizons and looking beyond two or three generations helps to reinforce a sense of family, something that can be comforting if you have a small immediate family or live far away from loved ones.

Exploring the diversity of individuals in your extended family tree is a never-ending journey into heritage and family bonds.

Differences in age, nationality, culture and class can seem irrelevant in the knowledge that the marriage of two people, many years ago is a part of history that your families will share forever.

Meet up - organising a family reunion

Planning is the key to a successful family reunion

The first golden rule of reunion organisation is to allow plenty of time for tracing and planning. Six months plus is ideal to make sure everything goes smoothly and that you are well prepared.

Send out letters to relatives well in advance and ask them to pass information on to any other family members who may be interested. When you have an idea of numbers, set a budget and consider asking for contributions towards expenses, which should not be underestimated.

Make the venue relevant to the history of your family. A village or area where your ancestors lived is ideal.

Write up an itinerary for the day, rather than just having a gathering, particularly if most people are going to be strangers. Set a time for the reunion to start and end, so that there is no awkwardness about when people should arrive or leave.

A tour of sites where your ancestors lived and worked and churches where they were baptised, married or buried make the event more interesting. Copies of maps, certificates or other historical documents are useful handouts to further illustrate the lives of your ancestors.

If you are planning to visit cafes or restaurants, ensure they will be open and check that they don't mind catering for groups.

A family tree chart including all of the members present makes a nice memento of the day. But don't think you have to do it all yourself - you could persuade a fellow family member to help prepare this.