The legal risk of discovering a long-lost sibling through DNA testing

for some people who discover a long-lost family member, it’s not a reunion to celebrate.
Published: Mar. 23, 2023 at 9:32 AM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- It was a meeting a lifetime in the making. “We both were like, ‘Oh my God. This is really you!’ But then we hugged each other and you could tell we both don’t like physical touch,” laughed Desirae Outcalt. For her and her new-found sister, that was the first of a lot of similarities. “We moved out of the house at the same time. We like the same type of music,” Outcalt said. “We both have a love of cars and we don’t know where we got that love of cars from because neither of us grew up that way.”

Several years ago Outcalt used 23andMe to learn more about her own health history. “I’ve never met my father. My mom passed away at an early age, so I wanted to know,” she said. Outcalt knew there was a possibility she could make some family connections, too.

“I received a message from a young man saying we matched as first cousins,” Outcalt recalled. “He sends a picture over of who I think is my aunt at this time, and I’m like, ‘Nope! This is definitely not my aunt because we look too much alike.’ The resemblance was uncanny, and so she took a test as well and about five weeks later he messaged me and goes, ‘Well, I guess you’re my aunt!’”

The sisters’ connection - hug and all – was happy. But for some people who discover a long-lost family member, it’s not a reunion to celebrate. “I think people are always looking for the Cinderella story. They want the happily ever after,” said Allison Kierman, an estate planning attorney. There are potential legal and financial risks involved in discovering family members.

“I always tell people to be cautious because my biggest worry is money. Who has it? Who has more? Who’s going to want some?” Kierman told On Your Side. Those questions often come up when someone has died, and it can get really complicated. A recent survey found only 34% of American adults have an estate plan. “Worst case scenario is there’s no estate plan. Under the law it says the assets go to the surviving heirs. This is bloodline. This is not about the relationship,” Kierman said. “So if the assets go to the children, it goes to however many there are, even if you don’t know all of them. And it could be divided in a way you don’t think your family would want.” That’s why it is critical to make sure your intentions and wishes are known. “For all my clients, I just tell them we have to be really specific,” Kierman added.

Common DNA testing companies like 23andMe and Ancestry note in their terms and conditions that users may make unwanted discoveries because of their DNA test results. Users agree to take on the risk.

Before they met, Outcalt and her sister Googled each other. “I was full steam ahead. She was extremely cautious,” Outcalt recalled. “I always wanted a sister when I was a kid. Always. And now I have one!” That’s their version of a Cinderella story.