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The Key to Understanding Family Relationships


One of most common issues in genealogy is to understand the relationship between two people in a family. For example, most people are familiar with the concept of a sibling (brother or sister) and a cousin, but what exactly is a second cousin twice removed? In this article, we will answer this question by providing a method to determine the relationship between any two people in a family tree. We also include a convenient relationship chart that you can print out and keep for your records.

In most cultures, extended family members interact with each other. For example, guests at a wedding are often distant relatives of the bride or groom. Similarly, witnesses on a marriage license are also often distant relatives. These are the kinds of records people come across when tracing their ancestors. Knowledge of how people are related to each other can provide useful clues when looking at such records.

The easiest way to determine how two people are related to each other is to use what is formally known as a canon law relationship chart, but what is more commonly referred to as a Family Tree Relationship Chart. One is shown below.

family tree relationship chart
View the Family Tree Relationship Chart in pdf format.

The Family Tree Relationship Chart works on the principal of finding the common ancestor between two people. In other words, to determine the relationship between any two people in a family tree, it is necessary to know what direct ancestor the two people had in common. This could be a parent, grandparent, great grandparent, great great grandparent, etc. It has to be the same direct ancestor for both people, but the relationship to the direct ancestor does not have to be the same for each person. For example, for one person, the common ancestor could be their grandmother, and for another person the same common ancestor could be their great grandmother.

Once the common ancestor has been identified, it is a relatively mechanical exercise to determine the relationship between any two people in the same family tree. It is simply a matter of looking it up on the Family Tree Relationship Chart.

The first relative is put on the first row of the chart. The second relative is put on the first column of the chart. The point where the row and column intersect is the relationship between the two relatives.

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