What is a Distant Cousin?

Are you interested to know what a distant cousin is and whether you are genetically related to them? In this article, we'll help you understand what a distant cousin is, whether they are considered family, and what DNA results might say.

If you have a large immediate family with whom you are close it is very probable that you know some of your closest cousins. It is highly likely that you will spend time with some of your first cousins and maybe even a few of your second cousins.

To some people, their first cousins may actually be some of their first friends in life. Before we reach preschool age we will likely have met and played with the children of our aunts and uncles who may be around our same age.

There are cousins though who are considered more distantly related. What exactly is a distant cousin and how are they related to us?

What Does the Term Distant Cousin Mean?

In technical terms close family includes grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, siblings and children. Our extended family would include cousins such as first, second and third level. After thirds cousins, however, those individuals are considered distant cousins.

With our third cousins, we share a set of great-great-grandparents. Once we get to fourth cousins our common ancestors are our great-great-great-grandparents. The higher the cousin level the more generations there are between us and our common ancestors.

Why Are Fourth Cousins and Beyond Considered Distant?

The reasoning behind fourth cousins and above being considered distant families is quite simple. Generally speaking, most people do not know any of their fourth cousins and have likely never knowingly met one.

There are of course exceptions to this rule as large family reunions are not unheard of. I myself am friends with two of my fourth cousins on Facebook, although I would never have found these cousins had I not been researching my family history.

As a general rule though if the relationship is such that you are unlikely to encounter this relative in normal life then they are considered a distant relative. They are not usually part of the normal social sphere of your immediate family.

Are Distant Cousins Actually Related to Us?

If we are referring to a cousin with whom we know we share at least one common ancestor then the answer to this question is yes they are related to us. There may be many generations separating us from that common ancestor but as long as that connection exists, in genealogical terms they are family.

Cousins who are part of the family via marriage or adoption may still be considered our relatives but only by virtue of having married. If they do not share a common blood ancestor with us they are cousins-in-law.

Are Blood Cousins Ever Not Family?

You might imagine that if you got into the region of 10th or 11th cousins that at some point they would be so distant as to not actually be related to us. This is not the case because if we can trace both of our respective lines back to a common ancestor they are still technically relatives of ours regardless of the distance.

Obviously, in genealogical terms, we might reach a point whereby we are unable to find the exact relationship with more distant cousins. Eventually, the trail of records dries up and we just cannot be certain who the shared ancestor is.

These cousins may still be related to us but the only indication may be a common haplogroup or a small amount of matching DNA.

Do Distant Cousins Share DNA?

With our extended family, it is highly likely that we will share DNA with everyone that we are related to via blood. This means up to around third cousins we should definitely share some amount of common DNA as long as we have common ancestors.

With distant cousins, however, this is not always the case. There is about a 30% chance that we share no DNA at all with one or more of our fourth cousins. This is because we may not inherit DNA from our mutual great-great-great-grandparents.

We are still related because we descend from those great-great-great grandparents but because one or both of us did not inherit any of our mutual ancestors' DNA then we would have no genes in common. With my known fourth cousin, we know who our common ancestors were and we share about 60 centimorgans of matching DNA segments.

When we reach the sixth cousin level there is a 90% chance that we do not share any DNA with our cousins. The further we get away from those common ancestors the less DNA we are likely to share. The reason is that in each generation a non-related person marries into the bloodline decreasing the amount of DNA from common ancestors that get passed down.

Even if we do not share DNA with a cousin this does not mean we are not related. As long as they can trace their line back to our common ancestor they are still related to us.

It is interesting to note that even though the DNA amounts decrease it is still possible to share small amounts of DNA with very distant ancestors. We could potentially share 1% of our DNA with a 15th cousin.

This is obviously a very small amount and we would have to prove such a match with genealogical documentation but it is statistically possible.

How Many Distant Cousins Do We Have?

With each successive generation, a family population theoretically increases exponentially. This means that we will likely have more second cousins than first cousins. This trend will continue with there being more third cousins, than second and so on.

Cousin Level Average Number of Cousins
First Cousins 6
Second Cousins 28
Third Cousins 175
Fourth Cousins 1570
Fifth Cousins 17,300
Sixth Cousins 174,000

Between fourth and sixth cousins there are potentially in excess of 200,000 distant cousins on average. Some families may have markedly more while others have far less but ultimately speaking we have far more distant cousins than we would ever be able to trace.

How Do We Find Distant Cousins?

The easiest way by far to find distant cousins is through DNA testing at sites like AncestryDNA or 23andMe. When we have our DNA tested these sites find matches in their customer database who share significant segments of shared DNA with us.

Depending on the amount of DNA we share with these matches in centimorgans the higher the match and the closer we are related. As mentioned, first, second and third cousins who have tested on the site and have chosen to be viewable should match us on some level.

When we get to distant cousins, however, it is possible that we have fourth cousins and beyond who have tested with the same company we have but who do not share any of our DNA. This is where we would have to work harder to find our distant cousins.

It is entirely possible that we might match as a fourth cousin with one person but do not match at all to their full sibling. If their DNA indicates that they are full siblings then quite obviously that another individual is also our fourth cousin, we just do not share DNA.

In order to trace distant cousins without the use of DNA, we need to start researching our genealogy in the opposite direction. Instead of moving back through our ancestral lines from ourselves, we have to work forward from a specific ancestor to the modern day.

This can be a little more tricky as instead of looking for the next set of parents we are trying to trace all of the children of one of our distant ancestors. This can quickly become a very complex project that will take a lot of time but it actually has its place in genealogy.

There are professionals who actually make a career out of their research in which they perform this type of discovery. It generally is contained to the extended family cousins but the aim is to determine all potential living heirs of an individual.

Talk to Your Older Family Members

A great tip to help you locate distant cousins a little more quickly might be to talk to the oldest living members of your family. If you can discover the names of the first, second or third cousins of your grandparents you may be able to research down from those individuals.

In the above example, the grandchildren of your grandparents' first cousin would be your third cousin. That means that the grandchildren of your grandparents' third cousin would be your fifth cousins. So by finding out from your grandparents about their third cousin you could conceivably trace that person's grandchildren who would be your distant fifth cousin.

Conclusion

Distant cousins are those from fourth cousins and beyond. They share common ancestors beyond your great-great-great-grandparents generation. As long as they are direct blood descendants from a shared common ancestor then these distant cousins are considered family.

You may not share blood with these distant cousins but you are still related by virtue of common ancestry. The further away cousins become in distance from us the more potential cousins there are in that generation.

We will never know all of our distant cousins. In fact, it’s likely we would be lucky to locate even a small percentage of them. There are, however, so many that we could be standing behind a sixth or seventh cousin in line at the grocery store and not even know it.

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  • "What is a Distant Cousin?". NameCensus.com. Accessed on May 29, 2022. http://namecensus.com/blog/what-is-a-distant-cousin/.

  • "What is a Distant Cousin?". NameCensus.com, http://namecensus.com/blog/what-is-a-distant-cousin/. Accessed 29 May, 2022

  • What is a Distant Cousin?. NameCensus.com. Retrieved from http://namecensus.com/blog/what-is-a-distant-cousin/.