Finding Living Relatives (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

A Resource Not to be Mike Karsen[edit | edit source]

Before rushing too deeply into your document search, you should make sure that you have fully exhausted a valuable resource, your living relatives. Facts such as maiden names, exact location of your family’s origin, or other family information could take months or even years to extract from a document search. Family lore can be learned only  through the accounts of living relatives.

From your current list of family members start a ‘to contact’ list. The older members should, of course, be your highest priority, but everyone has the potential to lead you to some valuable information. You will want to obtain all possible family records and resources from them.

In addition, you will continue to add names to your family tree and continue expanding your ‘to contact’ list. Finding relatives in the branches of the family with whom you have lost contact should be your next goal.

Skills Required[edit | edit source]

By now you realize that genealogy requires that you think like a detective. Your search for living relatives requires you to develop additional skills:

1. Being Inquisitive

Do not be afraid to ask questions, even if some seem a bit personal. You need to uncover all of the family facts to be a good family historian. In addition, sometimes open-ended questions are useful:
“What else can you tell me about him/her?”
“Is there anything else I should have asked?”
“Who else should I talk to?”

2. Being Willing to Call a Stranger

Sometimes calling people we do not know is a bit intimidating. Be sure you have a mini-script in your head (or even written down) before calling. You should be able to explain how you are related to the individual and why you are calling (e.g. “I’m compiling a family history which I’m going to share with the entire family”). Most people will be helpful once they know who you are and what you are trying to accomplish. Do not let the very few people who are uncaring prevent you from making these calls and attaining your higher goal.

3. Persistence

You must keep at your search and not leave any stone unturned. Once you realize the many tools at your disposal, you can find many paths to follow. It is possible that at some point you may hit that brick wall where you have tried everything you can think of. At this time, document all steps taken and put your work aside. When you pick it up again in a week, a month, or even months later with a fresh mind, new paths may appear to you.

How to Find Them?[edit | edit source]

As your ‘to contact’ list grows you will keep re-prioritizing it. It is often best to focus on one branch of your family at a time. This will help you keep your mind straight on a smaller group of individuals and relationships. It is highly advisable to keep a notebook or journal where you log each contact and write notes on each conversation. This will be very helpful when you try to recall the steps of your search.

Develop an ‘Individual Profile’ (IP) for each individual you are trying to locate. This IP should contain the following information:

  1. Full name (including maiden name)
  2. Approximate age
  3. Where individual was born and lived
  4. Occupation
  5. Names of parents, siblings, spouse, children, and when each was born
  6. Other information

At this point, you are probably thinking “If I knew all of this already, I would not need to find the person.”  In most cases, you will not have all of this information. By recording whatever you have, however, you can organize your search more efficiently. These facts are the clues you will use to find your missing relative. Your search will help to fill in more of the IP as you proceed. The process, in fact, is trying to build a circle of people (parents, siblings, spouse, children) around the person. These intermediaries provide alternate routes to the original individual.

Before starting on your search for the individual, try to think back to who might know more about the individual from the people you have already contacted. Who might have an old family phone book? You are now ready to start your public search. This iterative process will take you from one source to another while always trying to add more facts to the IP. Eventually you will find the address/phone number of your relative.

Key Available Records[edit | edit source]

Today we are lucky to have the Internet, where more and more information is being made available every day. These records come with a warning that their accuracy must be judged on who is making them available and the reliability of their sources. The other records we will review here are some traditional genealogical records.

Internet[edit | edit source]

Many online telephone directories are now available for not only standard telephone lookups, but also reverse ones by telephone number or address. Some of the address lookups allow you to leave off the house number and get everyone on a specific street. In this way, you can contact someone who lives near where your relative lives or once lived. When looking for an individual name, you may need to try different formats of it (e.g. with and without middle initial). For females, be sure to also look for listings with just a first initial. Women sometimes do this to protect themselves. For similar reasons, a widowed woman often keeps her phone listed with her husband’s name long after he is gone. Do remember that only individuals with listed phone numbers can be found in these public directories.

With websites continuing to need to find additional revenue, you will often find offers of links to sites that provide information for a fee. While these may be quite legitimate sites, you probably should reserve their use until all other avenues have been exhausted. With the Internet still a very inconsistent source of information, these databases do not yield exactly the same results. Try a few sites and searches in different formats before concluding that you cannot find the individual.

White pages allows for both residential and business lookups, reverse address and phone numbers lookups.

Switchboard allows for both residential and business lookups and reverse phone numbers lookups.

Infobel is a mega site that does all of the above by linking to many different directory websites.

Search Engines are among the most powerful new tools on the Internet. They allow you to search virtually the entire Web for a name, place, or anything that interests you. You can search for multiple keywords to try to limit the search. One of the biggest problems you may find is that your search can yield too many websites.

Even though the search engine has a way of prioritizing the results, you may still have to sift through many hits before you find ones useful to you. Each search engine has a “help” section, which explains the rules for constructing effective searches. A sample search for a relative named “Harry Smith” yielded the following:

‘Harry Smith’ yielded 44,500 hits
‘Harry Smith’+Indiana yielded 2,030 hits
‘Harry Smith’+Indiana+accountant yielded 37 hits

In this case the number of hits was greatly reduced when more facts were added from Harry’s IP—that he was from Indiana and that he was an accountant. The sites that contain references represent places where your relative’s name may be mentioned for some activity he/she does or did participate in or is/was associated with. You may have to email or call the organization that sponsors the site to get on your relative’s trail. Of course your “Harry Smith” may not be among the 37 found here. Then you will need to try yet another path.

Google is one of the most utilized sites today. It is very easy to use and a good place to start. Use ‘advanced search’ for complicated searches.

Ask offers excellent advanced searching capability.

Traditional Genealogy Records[edit | edit source]

Death records are important in adding information to our Individual Profile (IP). Today more and more of these can be found online. Our main goal here is to find an obituary or death notice, which contains valuable information about someone in the family circle. These notices generally include names of all immediate family members—including married names of daughters, name of funeral home, and possibly the name of cemetery. The following are useful in searching for death information. Death certificates have been required in most locales since early in the 20th century. The key information shown often includes parents’ names, name of cemetery and funeral home, as well as date of death. VitalChek lists where to send for vital records including (birth, marriage, and death) in the USA.

Social Security Death Index (SSDI) lists over 70M individuals whose deaths have been reported to the Social Security Administration (SSA) in the United States. It mostly lists individuals who died after 1962 and who had a social security number (i.e. who were in the work force) and allows searches by name or another field. The database gives the individual’s Social Security Number, birth date (as reported to the SSA by the applicant), the date of death (usually just the month and year), where his or her last benefit was sent (not the place where the death occurred), and the state where the original application to the SSA was made (not where the person was born). Once you know the month of death you can search elsewhere for the death notice or obituary. You can search the SSDI at FamilySearch™.

Obits and death notices can be found in the local newspaper where the death occurred or where the person lived. These newspapers are usually found on microfilm in your local library. You can call the library directly and ask the reference librarian for help in finding what you need. Alternatively, you can ask your own local library to see if they can obtain the specific microfilm via inter-library loan. There are many newspapers that now have online indices, which also can be searched. You can either talk to the local librarian or search Cyndi’s List for a current list.

Another option is a group of volunteers who do obituary lookups. Check the Obituary Lookup Volunteers website. Once you know the name of the cemetery, you can contact it and ask for any records on file on the deceased and for the name of next of kin. Generally, in an effort to protect the family, they will not provide this information. They will, however, often be willing to forward a letter from you to that individual. Similarly, funeral homes maintain records that have information about the next of kin, sometimes even with addresses and phone numbers.

While we have focused only on a narrow set of records here, many additional ‘traditional’ genealogical records can add clues to our search. These records include marriage, birth, census, city directories, property, and many others. Again, as you do more of your family research and discover more of these documents, you will be able to go back to your search for more living relatives.

Serendipities[edit | edit source]

As you find these living relatives, meeting them can be a wonderful experience. You can even plan to visit them during your travels. In this way you have a great opportunity to find actual family photos and documents first hand rather than remotely. These visits have the potential to develop your relationships into special ones, which can turn your genealogical pursuits into a real living experience and can be a real serendipity.

Finding living relatives is a very challenging part of the genealogical experience, yet one of the most rewarding. It gets you out of the libraries and court houses—allowing you to interact with real people and find insights into your family that are impossible to find any other way.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.