Genealogy is much more than gathering names and dates. It’s about bringing your ancestors to life, giving them a voice and sharing their stories. Many researchers prefer the term “Family History” to “Genealogy.” The word history is simply the factual story of past events.

At some point in your genealogical journey, you will uncover something unexpected, perhaps unsavory, maybe something that your ancestor wanted to take to the grave.

This is not a matter of “if” but “when” you discover something previously hidden or unknown. It might be a divorce, a child born out of wedlock, an affair, a crime, a physical or mental disease, incest or something else. Finding these “skeletons in the closet” might be interesting to you, the family historian. Your living relatives may disagree.

Here are some real-life but anonymized examples of sensitive situations uncovered through documents, photographs, letters and/or DNA:

A second great-grandfather was a bigamist who was arrested on several occasions for petty crimes.
Discovered through newspapers.

An uncle, married with five children, was gay, but not out, in the first half of the 20th century.
Discovered through photographs and letters.

A grandmother was an alcoholic.
Discovered through her death certificate.

The mother of six children died at the peak of the depression from a self-induced abortion.
Discovered through her death certificate.

A great-grandmother died in a mental institution.
Discovered through newspapers and her death certificate.

A grandmother had a previously unknown (to you) first marriage and divorce.
Discovered by searching for records on Ancestry.

A great-grandmother was a victim of domestic abuse.
Discovered through police reports and divorce records.

A Nisei grandfather and his sister were declared deceased on the koseki, even though they were very much alive; another family member inherited the family land.
Discovered through the koseki and land records in Japan.

An Issei granduncle went to jail for one year and then was deported for trying to smuggle tools to Japan immediately before World War II.
Discovered through his ex-wife’s Evacuee Case File.

A family historian and her sister found out they are not genetically related.
Discovered through DNA.

A now-deceased father was only three-fourths Japanese and he likely never knew.
Discovered through DNA.

A woman discovered she is one-fourth Japanese, and previously never knew.
Discovered through DNA.

A mother had an affair while married, resulting in a younger half-sibling.
Discovered through DNA.

The long-standing oral tradition of Cherokee ancestry was proven to be false.
Discovered through DNA and documentary evidence proving the ancestors immigrated much later than expected.

Parents did not disclose to their child that she was conceived by a donor.
Discovered through DNA.

Questions to Ask Yourself
How will you handle these or other unexpected findings? Should you share the new information? Or should you keep it to yourself? Did your ancestors go to great lengths to keep some transgression a secret? How far back was the event?

Unexpected results with DNA
Using DNA in genealogy can be helpful when looking for relatives. For Nikkei, it gets complicated due to the prevalence of adult adoptions, but it’s still possible to find unexpected results. You might discover that a relative is mixed race. You might discover half-cousins, an unexpected grandparent, or maybe half or full siblings. For that reason, no one should take a DNA test unless they are prepared for unexpected results somewhere in the family tree.

What should you do when you uncover the unexpected?
Even though you might be excited about your discovery, your living relatives may not share your enthusiasm, especially if the information carries a stigma. How far back is the story you’ve uncovered? Will the facts be distressing to your living relatives? What should you do with your discoveries? Who do you tell? Should you tell? How, when, and to whom you share these discoveries must be considered.

The Association of Professional Genealogists requires that we “Treat information concerning living people with appropriate discretion.”1 The Board for Certification of Genealogists has similar ethical standards and requires that genealogists “will treat publicly available information about living people with sensitivity and will not publish any information with foreseeable potential for harm.”2 While you may not be a professional genealogist, this ethical standard should apply to your personal research.

Be respectful. Be compassionate. Be discreet. If sharing a discovery will be hurtful, consider keeping it to yourself. Or keeping your research notes private. As the family historian, you have a responsibility, to the deceased as well as to the living.

Technically, dead people have no privacy rights, at least in North America. But that is really a judgment call on your part. You alone can determine whether a fact should be shared, or if a particular skeleton should remain in the closet. Genealogy should be fun and rewarding, but it also should not be hurtful to our living family members.

Linda Harms Okazaki is a professional genealogist who is past president of the California Genealogical Society. She specializes in Japanese American records. If you have a genealogical question which might be answered in this column, send an e-mail to The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily of the Nichi Bei News.


  1. Association of Professional Genealogists, Code of Ethics and Professional Practices ( ).
  2. Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogists Code of Ethics, (

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