Direct-to-consumer genetic tests are growing in popularity both in the UK and around the world. They promise insights into our ancestry and origins, health, genetics and the opportunity to build family trees and discover relatives we never knew we had. They are also increasingly being used to uncover family secrets, trace absent biological parents and donors, resolve questions about identity and legal parentage, rectify birth certificates and support claims for citizenship and passports, particularly for UK citizens post Brexit.

Ancestry and family

Advances in science and technology and the scale of direct-to-consumer genetic testing offer new opportunities to explore personal ancestry and family history. Direct-to-consumer tests (such as companies like AncestryDNA, MyHeritageDNA, Living DNA and 23andMe) are marketed on the basis that people can uncover ancestors’ geographic and ethnic origins, increase understanding about health, find and connect with long-lost relatives and build and grow family trees.

For example, AncestryDNA states that it has more than 20 million people in its database and access to billions of people’s family trees enabling it to deliver rich family stories, solve the toughest family mysteries and trace personal origins to more than 1,500 regions around the world.

Direct-to-consumer tests can throw up unexpected and sensitive discoveries about conception, IVF mix-ups, infidelity, secret love and loss, maternity and paternity, ethnicity, unknown biological siblings and relatives.  Individuals who are donor conceived, adopted, from single parent families or seeking to solve a family secret are increasingly turning to these tests for answers about their parentage and origins.

They are also being used as a tool to trace parents, grandparents and family lineage in the hope of supporting claims for nationality and passports and mount financial and inheritance claims. As such, they can be fraught with challenging emotional dynamics and create complicated legal and practical issues that can have a serious impact on individuals, parents, children and families in the absence of skilled management.

Legal parentage and birth certificates

Identifying and tracing a biological parent via a direct-to-consumer genetic test can raise complex legal issues about parentage and identity. Just because someone is a biological parent does not necessarily mean that they are a legal parent or that their name should be reflected on an individual’s birth certificate. Questions about whether someone is a legal parent can create
challenging issues depending upon the circumstances of conception, as well as the operation of English common law or statute.

Resolving issues and disputes around legal parentage and the status, rights and responsibilities that flow from this can require expert navigation of complex assisted reproduction and family law.

In turn, direct-to-consumer DNA tests are bringing into closer focus the significance of applying to the court for a Declaration of Parentage to resolve questions about legal parentage, and correct and re-register birth certificates. These are bespoke applications made in the English Family Court under s55A of the Family Law Act 1986.

Each application for a Declaration of Parentage is carefully assessed by the English Court to check that it fulfils the relevant legal criteria and that there is sufficient supporting evidence. If granted, it can declare that a specified person is (or is not) a legal parent of an individual and correct and re-register that individual’s birth certificate under English law.

An application for a Declaration of Parentage can be sought in a range of situations to resolve:

  • An issue about biological and legal parentage following a direct-to-consumer DNA test.
  • Omission or errors in completion of patient HFEA consent forms at UK fertility clinics, calling into question the legal parentage of a non-birth parent for their child.
  • A dispute about an individual or child’s legal father or second legal parent.
  • A dispute about an individual or child’s birth certificate (e.g. to add or remove a parent).
  • Dispute about paternity/legal parentage and financial claims for a child or individual.

Whilst these issues are relatively new and evolving, they are becoming more prevalent in society and they require careful management to ensure the best possible outcomes for all concerned. What can start out as an exercise in satisfying personal curiosity about one’s origins can lead to unforeseen consequences.

If you and your family need expert advice about any issues uncovered through direct-to-consumer genetic testing, please get in touch via my bloss profile and to discuss how I can help you.