Sensitive information and the professional genealogist

As many of us have discovered delving into our family research, families and in particular the individuals that make up that ancestral past, have histories or even the proverbial skeleton hidden in the closet. Investigating for our own knowledge affords us space to digest information uncovered of a sensitive nature. We can make decisions to research for more details or to understand in greater depth the context of the actions. If the research has disproven a long-held family “truth,” we can pace ourselves to allow the necessary grieving process to occur.

But what about when potentially sensitive information arises during commissioned work for a client? To what standards are we as professionals held to when reporting such information to our client? Ideally, a clause in our client agreement should address such situations, making the client aware before the start of the work that more often than not, family research may uncover evidence of a past some consider best left hidden. As genealogists, it is not within our scope to identify, minimise or soften evidence likely to evoke an adverse reaction from our client.

As Thomas W. Jones reminds us, genealogical research is focused on, “accurately reconstructing forgotten or unknown identities.”1 Guided by the codes of standards or ethics of the various professional societies and organisations of which we are members of, we do not judge the facts or evidence, but proceed with open minds reporting on the information as found. We approach our research truthfully and with integrity, but are mindful of the potential pain that revealed information might cause the living.23

Handling Sensitive Information

Recently, while researching an extensive descendant family tree for a client’s great-grandparents, I stumbled across sensitive information concerning a marriage record in the indexes for England and Wales.  The marriage took place about thirty-two years ago, both parties were previously widowed, and there was no issue of the union. The bride and groom are “related” to each other via marriage, but not by blood. The parties are still living, complicating the sensitivity of the matter. Their union is not common knowledge amongst the extended overlapping family as it was a marriage of convenience to facilitate entry visas to the United Kingdom at the time for one of the parties.

Standard 56 of the Genealogy Standards require us to “present evidence objectively and without bias or preconception. [To]…not distort, mask, overplay or underplay evidence.”<((Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, 50th-anniversary edition (New York: Ancestry, 2014), 34.)) In keeping with this industry standard, my client received a full report of the marriage indexes of England and Wales for the particular surname in question per our contract, including the sensitive marriage data. As a courtesy, my client was informed of the desire of the parties to have this information kept private from any reports or group sheets he may distribute amongst the family during their lifetime to save embarrassment for all involved.

sensitive cairn
Cairn, Antelope Island State Park, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Professional genealogists are able to fulfil ethical obligations to report their findings accurately and without omission, and to maintain their professional integrity while recognising the interests of the living. Make sure before you hire a genealogist you do some research to ensure the professional you are is working to the highest industry standards. You can start by searching the Association of Professional Genealogists directory.

  1. Thomas W. Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof (Arlington, Virginia: National Genealogical Society, 2013), 1. []
  2. “Code of Ethics and Professional Practices,” Association of Professional Genealogists ( : accessed 13 October 2017). []
  3. “Guidelines for Sharing Information with Others,” National Genealogical Society ( : accessed 13 October 2017). []

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