Who Should You Include in Your Family Tree?

Adoptive parents. Step-children. Half-siblings. Previous spouses. It doesn’t take long for a “simple” family tree to not be so simple. As you’re compiling your family tree, who should you include? 


Twitter user @jerrycarbone recently tagged me in a tweet regarding Dear Abby’s advice about who to include in the family Bible:​

I agree with Dear Abby’s advice to include the step-children and their offspring in the family Bible. I would also include them in my genealogy software.

Who else would I include in my family tree? In a word: Everyone.

The step-children, the half-siblings, the adoptive parents, the godparents, the previous spouses that my ancestor didn’t have any children with… well, you get the idea.

I’ve been working on my collaterals — the siblings of my ancestors — trying to get at least the vitals for all of them. (Get them “hatched, matched, and dispatched.”) As I was researching Margaret Luella McKitrick, the sister of my great-great-grandmother Lavada Jane McKitrick, I found the death certificate for Margaret’s husband Joseph Broome.​

Joseph Broome Death Certificate, Ohio Dept. of Health, file number 16154 (1929), image on FamilySearch.org.

The certificate identifies Joseph’s parents as Felix and Victoria (Rhodes) Broome. Do I include them in my family tree? You bet!

Why I Include Everyone in the Family Tree

There are three reasons why I include everyone. First: It’s a matter of identity. If there are multiple people with the same name, including these “other” people is a way to sort them out. If there was more than one Joseph Broome in the area, I could identify Margaret’s husband as being the one who was the son of Felix and Victoria. (You can learn more about building identity in this post.)

Second: People do not live in vacuums. They interact with any number of other people, including the step-, the half-, and the in-law people in their lives. By including them in the family tree, I can have a better idea of who these people are and how they fit in. When I see these names pop up later in other records, I can look in my genealogy software and see if I already know anything about them.

The third reason is cousin bait. You never know where the family Bible or the family photos ended up. By including these “other” people in my public tree, I might make a connection with a “shirt-tail cousin” who can help me with my research.

But, Doesn’t This Clutter Your Family Tree?

Adding people like the parents of your 3rd-great-aunt’s spouse to your tree adds more names. However, I contend that it isn’t “clutter.” One of the ways we avoid combining people with the same name is by their FAN club (the friends, family, associates, and neighbors). If we have those people included in our family tree, it ends up making our research better.

Including Them vs. Researching Them

Just because I add Felix and Victoria (Rhodes) Broome into my family tree does NOT mean that I’m going to go out and start researching them extensively. I’m not going to spend my valuable research time tracing them back 8 generations. I’m just going to record what I have in relation to the people who I am researching.

Ultimately, including these “other” people in your family tree has benefits that outweigh the “clutter” to the family tree and the time it takes to add them.

Who Should You Include in Your Family Tree

Step-children. Half-siblings. In-laws. it can get complicated! Who should you include in your family tree and who should you leave off?

Posted: August 26, 2016.

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  • Amy, I really LOVE today’s post. I was in high school when I started asking my parents questions about my many aunts, uncles, and cousins, most of whom lived 2000 miles away, I wanted EVERYONE’S information. They were FAMILY, in my mind, even if they were the parents of my aunt’s husband. I am always surprised to hear people say they only want the direct ancestors. What things they are missing. Thank you for explaining to those who might not realize how important “everyone” is.

    • I agree with you Maryann. My Grandfather Cyrus married & had 3 children, after the birth of his daughter, she was @ a week old , when her mother died. My Grandmother Carrie married & had 2 sons & a daughter, & sometime later, Cyrus & Carrie were married. The children from Cyrus first spouse, were raised by their stepmother, my Grandmother Carrie. Cyrus & Carrie had 4 children. I really enjoy doing genealogy, with my dear cousin Keith.

  • I so agree with this post! I am an advocate of nurture trumping nature every time. I believe those that are close to us are who help form what and who we are more so than the blood that runs through our veins. While our DNA does determine our potential, what we do with our potential is determined by those who we have relationships with. In my tree I even have one line that is not related. My great grandmother died in child birth with my grandfather. My great grandfather remarried a woman who raised my grandfather and was the only great grandmother I ever knew. Her family and her extended family were our family. I was an adult before I realized these people were not actually related to me. This line (surname Hiner) is most definitely included in my tree.

  • I’m afraid I balked at the title, Amy. Is there such a thing as “your family tree”, or “my …”? I would argue ‘not’, unless you believe that only male ancestors carrying your own surname are significant to your history. There’s a whole outpouring balancing on a knife edge, here, but I will try and hold back 🙂

    • I think we might have a difference in semantics. Since many people equate a database in their genealogy software program as “their tree,” that’s how I framed the discussion. (I really wish that the early software developers hadn’t have called it a tree!) I regularly get questions from readers asking who they should enter into their software. “Should I include my half-brother?” “Should I include my grandfather’s first wife?” That’s where this is coming from.

      • I completely agree with you. My family is very large and for generations lived in the same area. They married into many of the same families that also lived for generations in the area. I can’t tell how many times I have found links to a family that was married into my family many generation before. That is one reason why I include all people that may not be linked by blood to me. You never know when you might find more than one link that can become a blood link generations down the tree.

  • I appreciate knowing this! I had heard you should not include people, for example, who are the parents of your 4th great uncle’s wife… I have found that in some area of the country, back in the day, it is possible to see those names again elsewhere… I will just keep adding. Thank you!

    • I figure if you have the information, why not record it? You never know when it will be of use later.

  • Hi Amy, great post. Do you have any suggestions for how to enter same-sex marriages in a database that doesn’t allow changes in the gender fields for marriage? Whatever anyone thinks of this, it is now legal in most states and will likely become more of an issue for genealogists as time goes on. I’ve just encountered this issue with someone I was helping.

      • Put both names in like you would normally then in the notes section write they are a same sex couple. I haven’t had to do this for my family but I use ancestry and when I add someone to my tree I always put in if they persons information is unverified if I don’t have any documents to back up the persons identity and connection. Sometimes I only get the persons name via word of mouth or a newspaper article. Then in your paper copy if you have one (I have both) you can write it in there correctly and make a note that when you’re computer programme is update to include same sex couples that you need to go back and change the sex of the couple to make them correct.

  • I love this post, too! Like you, I do lots of collateral and find it is frequently the best way to sort out which of the multitude of John Millers is actually related. The only hesitation I have of entering siblings of spouses of a grand-something or other when that spouse was not my blood relative is that Ancestry.com is going to persist in giving me “hints” that I am not intrested in following up. I know it is just a matter of mental discipline but those darned shaky leaves really nag at me.
    Another matter, there was a Broome (pronounced Broomie) famliy in Kiillbuck (Holmes County, Ohio) where I grew up and one married a cousin of mine.

  • My tree is mostly the result of looking for the story. There are some relatives who leave almost no evidence of their existence, so it is then necessary to expand the search in hopes of finding some tidbit of information that will contribute to the person I’m really looking for. And, like you, no matter how distant the relative is, I do try to find birth, death, and marriage information for anyone I add to my tree.

  • I have entered all of the above. In fact some of the best stories and most complete are about the ones that are not blood relatives. If they were in the lives of my ancestors they had influence on them. Thus their influence was probably passed down to me, the same way the morals, beliefs, and attitudes of my blood relatives has been. We are more than flesh and blood, we are the products of our ancestors, beliefs, morals, religion, thoughts, and attitudes.

  • Amy,

    A great article on a topic I struggled with when I started. My first attempt at a tree included EVERYONE and as a beginner it was too much to handle.

    My second time around I decided to include all half-siblings, all descendants but only the parents of those who married into the tree. My thinking is I can always go back and expand on these people later to flesh out further relationships and get past brick walls but to keep a handle on my 7,000 odd relations on my maternal side alone, I needed to do this to keep my sanity 🙂

  • A parent of a collateral spouse might have an ancestor who is a blood relative in a past generation. Taking advantage of your advice, you have a head start on who might have moved together and related history of more immediate blood relatives.

    I have seen a person go back to marry in a distant place her ancestors moved away from some 3 generations previously. This proved to be a really valuable pointer and association.

  • My beloved grandmother was in one of the most horrific stateside accidents incurred from a Korean War bomb. She survived but the financial toll on the family was exponential and they could not afford a camera, film, or the cost of developing.
    Had I not continued to include extended members in my family tree, I never would’ve known my great aunt had all sorts of pictures of her. Ones none of my grandmother’s immediate family have ever seen…including myself. My great aunt had passed away but I made contact with her adopted grand daughter who provided me with all of the pictures.
    I whole-heartedly agree with you Amy…anyone and everyone associated with your family, be it in-laws or second or third cousins removed, should be included as you never ever know what hidden treasure they have that you had no idea you were looking for!

  • I was raised in foster homes / children home as a result I did not know that my father’s father was raised by his grandmother & step- grandfather after the early death of his mother. I was given some help by a kind soul who had discovered grandpa’s name had been incorrect on Cencus. I add everybody to my.Family Tree because you never know when someone like me knows a name but has no dates nor info. Frustrating part is that I receive more Hints for the in-laws, steps, half siblings and their family but… I never know when I might make a connection nor help someone else make a connection.

  • You have confirmed what I have always believed. I keep both my ancestors & my husbands on the same tree. While working on my husbands line I ran across a name that I was sure I had seen before. After looking through my index I realized that 5 or 6 generations back our ancestors had married. With further research this proved to be true. Also my husbands grandfather had married his deceased wives niece.

  • My trees cover lots of extended relationships, for a variety of reasons The most important one, (my gateway collaterals?) had to be added because my paternal grandmother and her sisters were raised by other family members after their mother died. To varying degrees, these family members played large parts in my grandmother’s life and the lives of my father and his siblings. Leaving them out would be a huge hole in our story.

  • Curious as to what you think of this, my g grand father was the oldest, records show he was born before the marriage date, family rumor is that she was raped by an vagabond and became pregnant with said g grandfather, her husband raised him as his own, same last name as the other kids, other than DNA what do I believe? Is it possible she wanted to cover up a little premarital relations and he really was a member of the family out not.

    • Short of DNA, there isn’t a whole lot you can do. I’d consider an autosomal DNA test on the descendant who is closest to that couple. (He or she would have the greatest amount of the father’s DNA compared to other descendants.)

  • Excellent reasons, Amy. And, l learned a few terms today. Here’s one more reason to include collaterals in your tree. When I am helping someone with their family history, looking back at the family of a great-great grandparen, let’s say, the person will often comment on siblings and spouses and ask, “but, are these people really my family?” I tell them, “Would your gr-gr grandfather consider them part of his family?” If the answer is yes, then the researcher should include them.

  • This was a great article. My family married like I take out the trash. My grandfather married 4 times and only 2 children. My mother was the only child of his second marriage. His 4th wife was the grandmother I grew up with. I grew up having 3 grandmothers and I didn’t think it was strange. I also was adopted by my step-father when I was 26 and signed my own adoption papers. Every marriage of my grandfather and his brothers is an opportunity to add more family to my large pool of people. You never know when you might find a rogue in the group. I always add all I know about each person.

  • Hi Amy, so nice to know adding all is okay. I struggle to find out info of ancestral born in Poland 1699 and of his parents. Brick walls are so tough at times. I feel all family whether half or step are just as important. Thank you for your opinion.

  • Hi Amy,

    I re-read this post after your year-end tips review, and was thinking that I was wise over the years to include unrelated people with the same surname (a not-so-common one) so that I could connect the dots later with other family members of the people not related to me. The end goal being to connect their family members (and possible common ancestors) later, which renders these unrelated individuals just as crucial to my tree as those related to me.

    Happy New Year!


  • This is great. I was wondering if I was “cluttering” my tree adding so many people. Now I know I was right all along. Thank you Amy.

  • Re-reading a lot of my genealogy blogs from the year (your posts are my FAVS!) and read this one that I missed the first time around. I’m a compulsive “cleaner” sometimes so I have always viewed “collateral” folks as clutter – in laws, spouses, cousins, etc. But you have made an excellent point as well as others who have posted replies. I’m going back to see if I can “rescue” some of those people that I have dumped over the past 1 1/2 years when I started my genealogy trek. Thank you so very much, Amy….you rock!

    • Thanks for the compliment, Jeanne — you made my day 🙂 I hope you can “rescue” some of those collaterals!

  • Amy .. my tree is as wide as it is tall .. I have found places where families cross by researching FAN .. and in-laws and I love it when I find my family and my husband’s have matched up before! (Even if it’s the spouse of one of our lines) .. Sometimes I go ‘down the rabbit hole’ researching other lines .. not direct to me .. but I can then answer questions if I get them from people researching them.

  • Love this post. I too add everyone and love researching collateral lines as well as direct ones. I’ve “met” so many interesting ancestors by doing this 🙂 One line I’ve included is my great-grandmother’s “father”. She was born before her parents were married and her birth was registered in her mother’s name, with no father on the birth cert (I ordered a copy.) He was a widower when she was born and lived in the same area. I have no idea if he was her father or not, though within a few years of her birth, she has his name. As it’s a question I’ll never be able to answer (short of tracking down distant relatives and doing DNA tests), I have chosen to treat him as her father and his line is included. After all, he’s definitely the father of all her younger siblings whose descendants are related to me.

  • I just re-read this post as I have been struggling with an extremely complex family tree of my own.

    Now I am adding back in some family members that I wasn’t sure how or whether to record. I think I may just add some married-in parents’ names like commentator Sarah and go back and add their details later.

    I appreciate your posts and often find the comments helpful as well.

  • I have two trees (well, several actually): a basic, direct ancestor tree with collaterals added by name only in each generation. Then I have the comprehensive one. I share the first tree with relatives who may be daunted by the comprehensive one but add details of everybody in the last 3 or 4 generations who was known by the current family.

    • It is pretty easy to overwhelm the non-genealogists in the family! Are you maintaining and sharing these trees online or just in your software? If you’re doing them in your software, you might want to investigate if it will allow you to export just the direct line. That would save you from having to maintain multiple trees just so you can share a ‘basic” one with relatives.

  • This just happened to me because I didn’t ADD someone I couldn’t figure out the connection. A Surname came up of Collins with a 3rd Cousin match in 23&Me and they inquired. I knew I seen that name somewhere. Low and Behold. I contacted them with the census and info. They were living with my Great Grandmothers Brother. Hopefully he will respond with Yes I know those folks. Great Post! Going over some other census’s that do that.

  • I have included everyone as well. I feel it is only right to add anyone that is related to me in some way. Although it can be a headache to add these people I have done so anyway.

  • Do you include a spouse from a sham marriage on a family tree? The marriage took place to allow one person to become a citizen. The couple did not live together after the marriage.

    • I would still include him/her. First, it’s a relationship that created a legal document. Second, that marriage (even though unconventional) would have had an impact on other parts of their lives — they couldn’t marry anyone else in the meantime. Plus, it signifies that there was a connection between the two. Even if they weren’t living as a married couple, they weren’t random strangers. (At least, I’m presuming they weren’t random strangers!)

  • Amy, I completely agree! I add anyone who is connected to my family for the exact same reasons you do. One of the interesting things that happens is when I discover that two of my 1st cousins (several generations removed), who are not cousins to each other, married. Those relationships can be easy to miss.
    Sometimes the clues that come from collateral relatives are so much more revealing about our direct line ancestors than the clues that come from their children who we descend from. Great post.

  • I enter everyone. I found through following my g granduncle that my g grand aunt married my g grandmother ‘s father as a second marriage. My g grandfather met his wife because his older sister married my g grandmother ‘s father. I also was surprised when adding my husband’s cousin the relationship came up as my 10th cousin rather than 1st cousin to my husband. I found out where my great uncles first wife died and where she was buried ( not in our family plot but with her parents) by following her sister and brother-in-law. I also found how a guy from Massachusetts ended up marrying a girl from North Carolina. I would of never guessed how they met. I think my uncle met his wife because his uncle and her father worked together in the steel industry. Adding everyone can help connect more people than you can imagine.

  • I also put in everyone, and just the bare facts on those collateral people I don’t need to research – enough to establish they are who I think they are. I do have one Preston, though, I plan on doing more research into, or if curiosity. He was the midlife spouse (she was 45 when they married, each for the first time!), and from across the country. Information I’ve found on him makes me very curious about him, so he’s on my long term research list.

  • I always include collateral persons, but also include links to their vitals, i.e. birth, death, military, burial. This way I am not tying up my media folders, but still have access if I find I need it.

  • I just stick to relatives, spouses, and maybe parents of spouses. I can’t do all that extended stuff when making a tree about a specific person. I’m making a tree that features half of my siblings in the features. I won’t be in it because that side of their family isn’t related to me. Life goes like that sometimes. ….

  • I just stick to relatives, spouses, and maybe parents of spouses. I can’t do all that extended stuff when making a tree about a specific person. I’m making a tree that features half of my siblings in the future. I won’t be in it because that side of their family isn’t related to me. Life goes like that sometimes. ….

    As an adoptee, I have grave reservations about mixing and confusing lineage and the DNA that makes me, me and other adoptees themselves. I am not Yiblungfungibuss because the court says I am, nor are the women who married my father after his marriage to my mother stepmothers to me because a so-called genealogist said they are. Neither woman even knew I or my sister existed, not to mention that my mother was still very much alive at the time.

    By the time the other two wives came separately into my father’s life, his two daughters had long had their identities stolen from them by the courts years before he married either one of them. The women are only in the family tree as wives of my father, and because one is the mother of my paternal half-sibling who grew up with my brother who had not been abandoned as his sisters had.

    The weird thing is when utter strangers list my father on their trees-not because he is somehow part of their family but because perhaps someone in his/her family knew him or knew someone that did. In the case that this has happened, the information is for the most part incorrect and misleading. Shaky leaves are often anything but factual. Most have been very indignant when I contact them to inquire how they know my father and how they happen to have false information… and then ask them to either correct or remove it.

    On my tree I am listed as my birth name as is my sister listed as hers. Only a court or a family member would know these names, as only adopters and their own children would know my court -appointed name. None of this group would know of my life and its names, but they are not family (DNA relatives) so have no reason to know them. The tree is, however, on record in my legal name. My adoptive name has not been used since the late 1960s.

    The tragedy is that my sister was about 7 mos old when we were separated in 1948. She has no memory that she can recall concerning any of her immediate family, including me and her brother (who is deceased), so no matter which name I use, she will not recognize it. If she does DNA testing and is not aware that she is adopted-a big probability given the era in which her adoption took place-she will receive a huge shock because as I am listed in 8 DNA data bases, we should show up as a sibling match …

    Family trees are about family… not a created/blended Hollywood fantasy but those who form DNA across time and space. Love your adopters and their associates if you will, but don’t mix their non-relationship in your tree to confuse others who are indeed your DNA relatives. Create a separate tree for them. We all have but one pair who parented us-those who conceived and gave us life, and with whom we share 50% each of their gene pool. Please don’t confuse the generations who will come after you.

    I have a 2 year old grandson who calls another woman his paternal grandmother … He has no idea that I exist. We have yet to be introduced. I want him to know the truth of me… not out of ego but because he has the right to know who he really is and the other half of himself that even his father never knew because I did not know it myself until after my son left …


  • I’ve added all three of my brother in-laws wives(Husband’s side) but I won’t add any of the husbands that they had in the previous to my brother in-law. His third wife I didn’t even add her children from previous 4 marriaegs. Secondly, even though I love my sister in law dearly, my side of the family, I add her parents, siblings and nieces and nephews. The rest someone else can tackle. I have enough with my family and my husband’s family. I do need time to eat and sleep, LOL

    • I add them if I happen to come across the information (such as on a death certificate or marriage record), but I typically don’t research them, per se, unless I’m trying to sort out a difficult problem and I need to have a better understanding of who is who.

  • I ‘m dealing with my own feelings, and
    My father’s views on Family.
    We both feel the same way when it comes to how the family tree is,
    Blood relatives and their wives.
    Adoption and half related can be mentioned some where else, in a special notation.
    Other wise the purpose of the family tree has a weakened Surname, in which it stands for.
    If just everyone, anyone, are added
    This makes it a community tree.