How to Know if a DNA Match is Paternal or Maternal?

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Are you frustrated looking at your DNA match list because you don’t know how to tell if your DNA matches are paternal or maternal?  It’s very common to have this trouble, especially if you haven’t had, or aren’t able to have, one of your parents do a DNA test.  For people searching for biological parents, this is an especially important issue.  In this post, you will learn ways to figure out if a DNA match is paternal or maternal.

Note:  This post is based on Ancestry DNA and Family Tree DNA matches and aspects of the websites that are particular to those companies – but many of the suggestions will work for you no matter where you tested, so keep reading!

Is my DNA match paternal or maternal?

There are several ways that you can figure out if you are related to someone on your mother or father’s side of the family.  Most of these techniques work best if for people who are related to you at a 4th cousin level or closer.  The reason for this is because the more distantly you are related to someone, the more likely it is that both of your parents could be related to them.  It’s more common than you might think, so don’t use these ideas on distant cousin matches.

(Read more about this concept here – basically, everyone is your 16th cousin… ha!)

But we aren’t interested in 16th cousins here.  Or 8th cousins.  Or probably even 4th cousins.  Most likely, you have a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd cousin DNA match that you have been puzzling over.  Maybe they have a family tree, and none of the names look familiar to you.  Or perhaps they have no tree, but you would still like to try to figure out where they fit in your family.  The most important first step is figuring out if they are on your mom or dad’s side of the family, since that immediately eliminates 50% of the relationship possibilities.

How to Sort Matches by Mother or Father on Ancestry DNA

If you have had your mother or father test on Ancestry DNA, then you will have a “Mother” or “Father” tab appear, and you click on the desired tab and the website will only display those matches who fall into that category.   This will only work if one or both of your parents have tested with Ancestry DNA.  This type of DNA test only tests for autosomal DNA, so there is no way for the software to be able to tell you automatically if the match is on a particular side of your family.  Ancestry DNA is able to sort the matches for you this way based on whether or not you share your match with your mother or father.

How to sort matches by mother or father in ancestry dna

It’s Possible to Sort Matches by Mother or Father on Family Tree DNA, too!

On Family Tree DNA, it’s not as intuitive on how to sort your matches by paternal or maternal side.  You can still do it, however.  The tabs for maternal and paternal will only work if you have connected them to your DNA on your family tree on the site.  To sort the matches easily without having to go through those steps, first “check” the little box next to your mother or father’s name on your match list, and then click the box above that has an equal sign and says “in common with”.  In the image below, the two places you need to click are circled:

How to sort paternal and maternal matches on FTDNA

Use shared matches to figure out which side of the family the DNA match is on

If you haven’t had one of your parents test, are searching for your biological parents, or can’t have them test, then you will need to use other techniques to figure out which side of your match is on.  The exact way that you do this and how effective it is is going to depend on:

  • how many matches you have
  • how close your matches are to you
  • how close the match is that you are trying to learn more about
  • how much information you already know about your family tree

In this section of this article, I’ll show you some ways to try to deduce whether your matches are maternal or paternal.

Shared matches on Ancestry and FTDNA

The Shared Match feature on Ancestry DNA and the “In Common With” on Ancestry DNA are often overlooked.   You would be surprised at how many people just look at their long list of DNA matches and feel overwhelmed, never venturing into the realm of shared matches.  Don’t let this be you.  If you know which side of the family at least one of your 3rd cousins (or closer) is on, this tool can really help you figure out your tree.

Pretend that you want to know how “BobbyMiller123” is related to you.  He shows up as a possible 2nd cousin match, but he doesn’t have a family tree.  You have a good relationship with your biological mother (maybe you grew up with her), but your dad has been out of the picture and you are searching for his name and his family using DNA.

If you have a sibling to compare matches with

  •  Pick the closest match that you already know how they match you (except any children that might have tested).    For example, if you have a maternal half-sibling, a paternal aunt, a paternal first-cousin, or even a 2nd cousin.  The only requirement is that you know the side of the family that they are on, and they be closer than a 4th cousin match.  For our example, let’s pretend that you have a maternal half-sibling.  We are looking for matches on dad’s side of the family. 
  • Click on the “Shared Matches” tab – it’s right in the middle of the screen, basically.   Below is what it looks like on Ancestry: where to find shared matches on ancestry dna
  • On Family Tree DNA, you can find shared matches by searching for “in common with”.  First, check the little box to the right of your known family member’s name, and then press “=in common with” at the top of the match list.  The match list will repopulate with matches that you share in common with the match that you chose:How to sort paternal and maternal matches on FTDNA
  • I then recommend using a notebook (you should have one dedicated to your DNA results and notes) in order to write down the screen names of all of the shared matches that you share with this individual.  It is very likely that all of the shared matches are related on the same side of the family as the known relative.  You and your half-sister won’t have an identical DNA match list, but it’s not only because you have different fathers. (read more here) Your maternal matches at the 2nd cousin level and closer will definitely show up for both of you, however, and this can provide you with the clues you need to eliminate the maternal matches and focus on the ones that don’t show up as shared matches with the sister.
  • If “BobbyMiller” does not match your maternal half-sister, then he is definitely on your paternal side of the family.
  • The list that you made of all of the shared matches with your maternal half-sister will help you remember who is on which side of the family as you go through the rest of your matches.
  • When you have time, make notations near their names of the 6-8 surnames that appear in the first few generations of their family trees – it’s tedious but can really help.  This can help you if you are searching for biological family, or when trying to figure out how a match is related to you and you don’t have a close relative as a shared match.

Even if you don’t have a maternal or paternal sibling to compare shared matches with, you can use this strategy.

  • maternal or paternal aunts, first cousins, grandparents: any shared matches will provide immediate confirmation on which side of the family they are on, and will share all of your closer matches with you and many as distant as 4th cousins
  • half paternal or maternal aunts and uncles:  any shared matches will be related to you on the side of their family that is related to your parent
  • great-aunts or great-uncles (siblings of one of your grandparents), or half-great uncles or aunts:  these individuals will share both family lines, or only one with you, and shared matches with them can be useful for eliminating which side of the family your match can possibly be on.
  • 2nd and 3rd cousins: shared matches with these family members can help you confirm how a match is related, but there is something important to note;  2nd cousins can share much less DNA than closer cousins, and it is possible for 3rd cousins to share no DNA.  If the mystery match doesn’t share your 2nd or 3rd cousin as a match with you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t related on the same side of the family.  The 2nd and 3rd cousin shared matches are more useful in confirming how someone is related to you, rather than how they are not.

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Alternative ways to determine which side of the family a match is on

If you don’t have access to shared matches with a close family member, or you are searching for biological parents, it can be really difficult to figure out which side of your family your matches belong to.  But since it is extra important to do so, here are a few other ideas that might work for you:

  • Look at their family trees, if they are available, and see if anything on them matches something that you have been told about either side of your family.  For example, I was working with someone who was trying to locate her husband’s biological grandparents.  The husband’s father was born in Illinois, and the mother in Maryland – she didn’t know anything more than that about them.  When her husband had a close match show up with a long Illinois pedigree, she was able to use this information to sort matches on his tree.
  • If your parents had different ethnicity, you might be able to determine which side of the family your closest matches are on just by clicking on their profile and looking at the major ethnicities that are listed.  This is not an effective tactic for matches that are 3rd cousin or more distant, since you share less DNA with those relatives and thus their individual ethnicities are less relevant to your DNA.  This feature is not available on Family Tree DNA.
  • If you are comfortable with the idea, try this: if you know where you were born, or where either one of your parents lived for most of their lives (especially if you know your parents grew up in very different geographic areas), and you have a very close match, you can try to see if you can learn additional information about your match by doing a Google search for the username.  You might be able to find social media profiles, or posts on other genealogical sites inquiring about or discussing family tree information.   I don’t recommend “stalking” anyone by any means, so please don’t do that.  I simply recommend gathering as much information as you can so that you make educated guesses and jump to logical conclusions.  It’s a process of elimination.
  • If either of the above strategies help you learn which side of the family they are on, then you can use shared matches with them to learn even more.

During this process, take good notes and write down if you notice anything interesting.  It could come in handy later on during your search.


I wish there was a foolproof, guaranteed, 1000% accurate way to really know for sure which side of the family your match belong to.  That said, I hope that in this post you learned some ideas and strategies about how to use the information that you do have access to in order to figure this out for each of your closest matches.  It’s a great first step in reaching your family research goals, whatever they may be.

Do you have any questions, or stories related to figuring out which side your match should be on in your family tree?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments, especially if you have an idea that I didn’t mention that really worked for you.

Thanks for stopping by!


How to Know if a DNA Match is Paternal or Maternal?
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How to Know if a DNA Match is Paternal or Maternal?
Are you overwhelmed with trying to find out if your DNA matches are paternal or maternal? Learn some simple strategies for sorting your matches.
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Who Are You Made Of
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