How do I determine relationships between distant cousins?

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“How do I determine relationships between distant cousins?” Ensign, Apr. 1999, 52–53

How do I determine relationships between distant cousins?

Elizabeth L. Nichols, senior reference consultant in the Family History Department.

Let’s say you meet someone at a family reunion and know you are related, but you don’t know exactly what the relationship is. How do you figure it out? It’s easy if you know the ancestor (or ancestors) you have in common—the person or couple who appear on both of your pedigree charts.

Sample Work Chart

Common Ancestors

David and Elizabeth

Children of Common Ancestors






1st cousins




2nd cousins


2nd Great-Grandchildren


3rd cousins


3rd Great-Grandchildren


4th cousins


4th Great-Grandchildren


5th cousins

Lois Ann

To determine your relationship, it is almost a necessity to create a work chart (shown above). Place the common ancestors at the top of a page. Then list the pedigrees of the two persons in descending order, one on the left side of the page and the other on the right side.

The chart and following paragraphs show how you determine relationships. The first-generation relationships are easy: Clyde and Robert are sons of David and Elizabeth and are therefore brothers.

Cousin Relationships

The second generation—the children of Clyde and the children of Robert—are first cousins. The grandchildren of Clyde and Robert are second cousins.

As long as the cousins are the same number of generations removed from the common ancestors, the relationship is straight cousins (first cousins, second cousins, third cousins, etc.). For example, Whitney and Amber are both on the second-cousins line and are therefore simply second cousins.

Cousins Once or Twice Removed

When two people for whom you are trying to determine the relationship are not the same generation, then it is said they are “once removed” or “twice removed.” This refers to the generations they are removed from the common ancestor.

Let’s take, for example, second cousins Whitney and Amber. Amber has a son named Kaleb. Kaleb wants to know what his relationship is to Whitney.

Whitney is on the second-cousins line, and Kaleb is on the third-cousins line. Always start with the person closest to the common ancestor. Thus, start with Whitney. Come across the chart on the second-cousins line, and then down one more generation to Kaleb. They are one generation apart from each other; hence, Whitney and Kaleb are second cousins once removed (2 c 1 r).

Now determine the relationship between Kaleb and Paul. Paul is on the first-cousins line, and Kaleb is on the third-cousins line. Start with Paul. Come across the chart on the first-cousins line, and then down two more generations to Kaleb. They are two generations apart; therefore, Kaleb and Paul are first cousins twice removed (1 c 2 r).

Amber and Patricia are second cousins once removed (2 c 1 r). Come across the chart on the second-cousins line, and then down one more generation.

Patricia and Lois Ann are third cousins twice removed (3 c 2 r). Come across the chart on the third-cousins line, and then down two more generations.

What to Do if Information Is Missing

It is easy to see from these examples how a work chart helps you determine relationships to distant cousins when you know the pedigree for both. But what if you do not have a pedigree for both people? The work chart is still useful as long as you know the number of generations each person is from the common ancestor. Simply put place-holder lines in the work chart where the missing names would go. For example, if you don’t know the name of Amber’s parent, leave that line blank. Knowing that Amber is the granddaughter of Robert, for example allows you to determine the placement of their names on the chart. Then you determine the relationship.

Niece and Nephew Relationships

In the example, Clyde is an uncle to Shanna. Kaleb is a great-grandnephew to Clyde, and Whitney is a grandniece to Robert. You can correctly state this relationship as either great-niece or grandniece. I prefer grandniece or grandnephew because it makes the generations easier to keep straight; my brother’s grandchildren are my grandnieces and grandnephews, and his great-grandchildren are my great-grandnieces and great-grandnephews.

Personal Ancestral File® Can Help

If you have the family history computer program Personal Ancestral File and have both pedigrees in the same Personal Ancestral File data file, the computer can calculate the relationship for you. In Personal Ancestral File version 3.0, press Y to go to the Utility menu and select the last item.

Learning to determine relationships using this work chart or a computer program can be enjoyable because many of us are more closely related than we think.