Quick Tip – Trees, Death Dates and Unintentionally “Private” Ancestors

I manage trees for a number of DNA tests for my relatives at various vendors. DNA and trees work hand-in-hand to identify common ancestors, providing hints to direct you along that path.

If you don’t have a tree at the sites that support trees, meaning FamilyTreeDNA, Ancestry and MyHeritage, please either create one or upload a GEDCOM file from your genealogy software. Many of the features provided by those vendors depend on both your DNA results and the tree you’re linked to. While 23andMe does not support trees, you can include a link to a tree in another site under “settings,” then “enhanced profile” – so do that.

In many cases, especially for Y and mitochondrial DNA at Family Tree DNA, I only enter the relevant line for the tests taken. That way, anyone who matches my cousin can check their tree and easily view the relevant line for the test.

Often, especially if the person tested at my request, I’m the one who has done the genealogy and I don’t research the wives or collateral lines that are not relevant to the test that was taken. I don’t want to do a lot of maintenance work to export only a small branch from my desktop software, so I create each tree by hand from scratch.

Of course, if they have taken a Family Finder test, I upload a more robust tree for them that includes as much of their various lines as I know.

Uploading or creating trees helps us and other genealogists break through their brick walls too.

Ned Matched John – But Encountered a “Privacy” Roadblock

Recently, another Estes tester, we’ll call him Ned, matched the Y DNA of my cousin, John, and emailed me, saying that John’s entire tree was private. I told him that I had not made John’s tree private, so Ned sent me a screenshot.

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There’s no dispute – while the tree itself isn’t private, every single person in the tree is.

What could be causing this? In other words, how do I fix it? That’s not AT ALL what I intended.

Let’s Check the Privacy Settings

The first thing to do, of course, is to check the settings – so I signed in to John’s account.

I checked the privacy settings, located under Account Settings just below the user name of the kit, after you sign in.

According to the Privacy and Sharing settings, John’s tree is not private.

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That seemed odd, so I checked John’s tree myself. It looks fine to me, so I wonder what might be wrong?

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Nothing is showing as private from John’s perspective from within his account.

I decided to send Ned a direct sharing link to see if that made any difference.

The link I shared with Ned made no difference, but reading the information in the red box did! Yay for documentation!

I had not filled in the birth or death dates of the people in question or marked them as deceased. Yes, I know – my bad.

I clicked on the profile and then “View Profile” to verify.

Sure enough – no dates. To edit the profile, click on the pencil.

In order to cause the death date and death location fields to display, you must check the “Deceased” box which then turns blue.

Even if you don’t know the death date or location, marking the person as deceased allows their information to be displayed, such as their name, and NOT to be marked as private.

If you do NOT click the deceased box, the person’s profile WILL be marked “private” and will not be shown to anyone except you, the tester, if you sign in. You’ll have no idea that it isn’t showing to other people when you had intended to share all along.

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I marked each person as deceased and added death dates and locations while I was working on the tree.

Did that take care of the problem?

Let’s take a look from Ned’s perspective.

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Sure did.

In order for people to display, you need to kill them off, again😊

Tree Privacy

Every vendor has a combination of features that control tree privacy and security. You will be able to mark the entire tree private or shareable. You may be able to make it searchable, or not, depending on the vendor.

No vendor will display known living people to others – but the calculations they use to determine who may be living, unless you specifically mark them as deceased, will vary.

Be sure to check all of those factors, and find a way to view the tree from someone else’s perspective to check and be sure it’s functioning the way you expect.

I would never have known that all of John’s ancestors were private if Ned hadn’t contacted me.

At Family Tree DNA, if you view your own tree and you notice that neither dates nor question marks appear in the date field on the pedigree page – that means you have not marked these people as deceased – so no information for them will show to anyone else.

If you see any dates or question marks beneath the names of people on your tree – then that individual’s profile will show and is not private, unless you have marked the entire tree as private.

Check your trees to see if you have an unknown issue. Those valuable trees provide critical information to your matches. They may not contact you to ask why your tree is private – in fact – most won’t. They assume it’s a choice you meant to make.

Be sure you’re not unintentionally driving cousins away. You never know who’s going to have that crucial piece of information or photo, and you want all of your cousin-bait to function as intended!



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22 thoughts on “Quick Tip – Trees, Death Dates and Unintentionally “Private” Ancestors

  1. Wow, so all those bad thoughts I was sending to matches with “empty” trees should have been re-directed to a bit of programming code!
    Thank you, Roberta!

    • Yea, I felt bad for my negative thoughts too. And I know people have had those same thoughts about me.

  2. Yes, in all three FamilyTreeDNA options I will open a tree. Five or six generations back the individuals are blocked. What the heck is THAT all about? No problem with living and/or minors being blocked, but someone from two centuries ago? To me that is more of a software problem. Any subsequent ancestor of someone born in 1830 needs to be assumed deceased by the application.

  3. While checking MyTree at FTDNA I have found a couple of people that do not have a pencil Edit Profile available. For those two people I cannot enter their recent death information in MyTree. This looks like a bug to me, unless anyone has an explanation?

    Secondly, not a bug but a deliberate FTDNA ‘feature’. In the UK before 1837 it is unusual to be able to find birth or death dates and places for anyone because that information was not recorded. We only have baptism and burial dates and places for those people. I therefore leave those fields blank in my software. Periodically I upload an updated GEDCOM to MyTree. Unfortunately FTDNA discard all baptism and burial dates and places when a GEDCOM is uploaded. For the people affected there is therefore no date or place information showing in MyTree.

    I am unwilling to fudge or speculate on possible birth and death dates and places in my software. It is impractical to manually enter fudged or speculative information in MyTree for hundreds of people even if I wanted to. For years I have requested that FTDNA show baptism and burial dates and places where no birth and death information exists, but they are not listening.

  4. Hi Roberta,
    I have done extensive DNA testing but I am finding some inaccuracies in my family tree that doesn’t seem to match the lineage from by Big Y 700 test. Thinking about reworking my tree so it’s more accurate. Any sites you suggest for finding records to verify members of my tree? Preferably not too expensive : )

  5. Thanks for blogging about this. I made the same mistake, and would bet that it’s pretty common. I wondered why a project admin was asking to see my brother’s tree, and only realized when I logged into my own account that I couldn’t see it, either. The problem, of course was those missing birth and death dates. Who knew!

  6. My goodness, this would have created a real issue had I done any sharing, so glad I did not put in name or dates or places of birth on a few of my ‘kind folk’ who demand to be unknown. This is wonderfully helpful information, but so sorry you had to go though such confusion. Thanks, Roberta!

  7. Thank you so much for this post, Roberta. I’ve consciously chosen to have my main Ancestry tree public, but I’m now thinking that a whole load of people who died 200 years ago will be showing as private, because I don’t know when they died.

    • Every vendor is different. So check what they have to say. Maybe the easiest think to do would be to send a link to a friend or yourself at a different email and see what someone else can view.

  8. First up I was grumpy too, before I remembered that most people just misunderstand the system. (Easy when an explanation has to come from someone outside their company. Thanks for telling us about this.)

    I find that Ancestry tends to strip away deceased tags from my most distant ancestors on many lines when I upload a revised tree. There seems to be no problem for more recent generations with no death date – apart from the most recent century.
    So now I check after every upload.
    For various reasons I prefer to build my tree using my tree program and then upload.
    Don’t know whether the tree now exceeds some size threshold or they changed the settings on uploads a year or two ago, but they now strip out all of my sources when I upload. Although any other Gedcom using program does not. I work hard on evidence and would like people to see my sources and be able to challenge them. But it ain’t so.
    I have had to say something appropriate in my tree intro to let people know I did not just dream up my tree and to encourage them to ask me to share my evidence.

  9. So, do I understand this part correctly:

    If a person in our tree was born MORE than 100 years ago, then it will not matter if they have not been marked deceased or do not have an entered death date? They will be visible automatically?

    In other words, do we have to go through our ENTIRE trees, checking that everyone born over 100 years ago is also marked deceased (assuming we want them visible to others)? Or is it only for people born less than 100 years ago?

    No wonder I’ve been encountering so many trees on FTDNA as you describe.
    Seems this is a problem FTDNA should correct, maybe with a very obvious warning each time a person’s data is entered, and near the tree tab, or some such thing. They need to do something more obvious to let everyone know about this subtlety and let customers know that they need to check their trees.
    Maybe you have some influence, Roberta? … hint, hint …

    Thanks so much for the alert… I can’t tell you how many times your practical expertise has helped and clarified things!

    • As I understand it, and all I have to go on is what you see, anyone burn more than 100 years ago will be shown. Note that I did not have birth years for these people either.

  10. It is wise to put approximate (Abt.) birth and death dates both at Ancestry.com and Family Tree DNA trees. Even if the dates are incorrect, they would be in the neighborhood, and better than nothing.

    Roberta, I have seen the surname Garmon on your blog. I used to know living Garman, as friends of my husband’s Taylor family. Are they of interest to you? So many interrelated people!

  11. I have been putting “deceased” in death date in my database and then using GEDCOM to upload to the sites. I hope this would eliminate having to go into everyone’s individual profile on the sites and click the deceased box. Is this true? Does this only apply to Ancestry’s site?

  12. I have edited profiles in my tree but there is no “save” button to complete the edit. Can you advise what to do to make the profile edit effective.
    Thanks. I enjoy your posts

    • There’s a save button at the bottom of the edit screen. If you don’t see this on your device, call support. I use Chrome and it’s there on my systems.

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