Family history: the paternity question

People have been having affairs – and illegitimate children – since the world began. For me, this means hundreds of story ideas for the ‘Rose Haldane: Identity Detective’ series. For family history researchers, paternity fraud presents a big dilemma: whether to believe what the records say. Adultery is notoriously difficult to trace through the records, with many women giving birth to babies whose father is not her husband. paternityHow do you spot a problem? Look out for:-

  • Family rumours. Is it spiteful gossip, or is the rumour confirmed from different sources?
  • Where was the father nine months before the birth? Did the birth take place a suspiciously short time after the wedding? Why is the paternity questioned?
  • Physical likeness, does a child look like its father? Not a reliable measure, as often children are genetic throwbacks and resemble neither of their parents.
  • Is it known that the mother had affairs? Check the divorce records for evidence of adultery.
  • Are the parents living apart, so suggesting a marriage separation. Check the Census.
  • A marriage breakdown is often evident in a person’s will, an estrangement may be mentioned. Or there may be a bequest to someone not in the immediate family.
  • Was the sibling not particularly close to his or her father? And is there evidence of another man being involved in the child’s upbringing; this may be unconscious interest, evident only through the observation of relatives.

If someone on your family tree has a number of these inconsistencies, there may be a case of ‘paternity fraud’. Always approach your research with care and sensitivity for the feelings of relatives. paternityThis post was inspired by Ed Dutton’s article ‘Who’s the daddy?’ in the May 2016 issue of the UK’s Who Do You Think You Are? magazine. Click here for more information.

There’s more about Ed Dutton at his website.



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Who is the real ‘father’ on your family tree? via @SandraDanby #genealogy


  1. So much weight on who are our parents that the search for genetic verity often gets in the way of what we might become. Yet I understand wanting to know – even for someone like me who knows without any doubt. There are always questions.

    • sandradan1

      Yes there are always unanswered questions in your background, even if you know your parents. I read somewhere recently that by the time you reach the age of 40, you have to accept responsibility for who you are and not blame your parents! SD