Could DNA Testing Shake Up Your Family Tree–and Your Estate Plan?

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Lauren Pitman

Attorney, Founder

Families have always been complicated, but I never knew just how complicated until everyone started giving DNA testing kits as Christmas gifts!

If that sounds a bit like science fiction, it isn’t. These are the popular genealogy kits that are helping people learn more about their family histories.

It sounds innocent enough: you swab your cheek and send it off, and then you learn more about your lineage. But what 23andMe, Ancestry, and other genealogy companies didn’t realize is that they are, in the process, revealing secrets about the people closest to us: our grandparents, parents, and siblings.

Luckily, a good estate planning attorney is prepared for all types of complicated family situations. This is just the newest development in the age-old truth of my profession: that all families are different, and they’re always a bit more than they appear.

The results of a DNA test can shake up a family tree. People are learning that the lives and relationships of their loved ones have not always been as simple and straightforward as they seem.

While some are learning that their ancestors came from unexpected continents, others are finding out that they have living family members they’ve never met.

In some cases, these family members could have a right to an estate. These are called “discovered heirs,” and even if they have never had contact with their biological parents or other family members, they are, in some cases, entitled to an equal share of the estate. 

In fact, part of the court’s duty is to seek out all potential heirs and to entertain all those who come forward, claiming to be a relative. It’s a slow process that costs time and money for the family who has lost a loved one.

If the law won’t catch up quickly enough, estate planning attorneys are thinking ahead and able to help their clients prepare for all types of scenarios.

So, what can you do to prevent this kind of complication for your family?

Your best course of action is to be honest with your estate planning attorney. If you have other biological connections outside of your “known” family, you need to be upfront with your attorney about the potential for a dispute.

These connections may include a newly discovered half-sibling or a child born outside of your marriage–even if it was long before you were married. When you give your estate planning attorney all the details you know about, you maintain control to include–or exclude–such people in your estate plan. 

You don’t have to disclose the information to everyone, but an attorney who has experience in this area knows how to discreetly help you make the best choices for you. He or she can also craft the document to get the results that are important to you. Only you know what it means to do the “right thing,” who you consider “family,” and what you value most. 

Your estate planning attorney might ask you to record a video, voice memo, or write a hand-written letter, so your heirs will know what you intended, in your own voice and words. This is a valuable tool whether or not we’re dealing with discovered heirs.

What if it’s what you don’t know that can interfere with your estate planning intentions?

In the future, someone may use DNA testing to learn about a family member you never knew you had. In this case, you still don’t need to leave it up to chance. A sophisticated estate plan accommodates all types of specifics. You can protect the people you love and make your intentions clear.

Once an estate is closed, a dispute can only be filed within a matter of months (the exact number depends on your state), so a DNA test that reveals a half-sibling five years after the estate is closed won’t likely change the outcome.

Like all aspects of estate planning, I know that it depends on each client’s idea of what’s “fair” or “right.” There are no right answers except for the ones that make sense of an individual family and their set of circumstances. That’s why I spend time getting to know my clients. A good estate planning attorney in your area will do this for you too.

As secrets continue to come to light, we know that estate planning attorneys are at the forefront of the legal implications of this new knowledge. Sometimes, it really feels like living in the future. I’m comforted that I can use the same set of tools for this situation as most others: compassion, genuine interest in my clients’ well-being, and a strong knowledge of the estate planning tools at my disposal.

The truth is that every single family has its complications. If it’s not a discovered heir, it’s a step-family or the fact that you give financial support to a neighbor. There are as many definitions for a family as there are people on Earth.

So, while it’s important to know that widespread DNA-testing might affect your family in the future, my advice to you remains the same: create an estate plan with a knowledgeable, sophisticated attorney with whom you feel comfortable. This is the best way to ensure your assets are distributed exactly the way you intended.

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Disclaimer: The information contained in this article should not be considered tax or legal advice and is not a substitute for such advice. State and federal laws change frequently and the information in this article may not reflect your own state's laws or the most recent changes in state or federal law. For current tax and legal advice, please consult with an accountant or attorney licensed to practice in your state.
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