Family Relationships Explained

Author: Robert W. Penry @ 2023

Someone says that they are your 3rd Cousin, twice removed.  What does that mean?  This article will explain how relationships are identified in genealogy.

THIS IS ALL ABOUT YOU!  All relationships are based on connections to an individual.  Everyone gets parents the same way, siblings the same way, cousins the same way.  So yes, relationships are about the individual, and the rules that apply to you, apply to all individuals.  You have parents, so did your parents, so did your cousins.  Genealogy charts always start with individual.  It doesn’t have to be you.  You could start the chart with anyone, but the rules of naming the relative connections remain constant.  

Genealogy Terms


An account or history of the descent of a person or family from an ancestor; enumeration of ancestors and their children in the natural order of succession; a pedigree. Study of one’s ancestry; summary history or table of a person’s ancestry. Regular descent of a person or family from a progenitor; pedigree; lineage.


People descended from a common ancestor; a person having kinship with another or others; The group comprising a husband and wife and their dependent children, constituting a fundamental unit in the organization of society.

Pedigree Drop

What is a pedigree drop? This occurs every time someone marries.  As generations go back in time, there are fewer and fewer people on the earth.  If you have six brothers and sisters, then in your parent’s generation, there were seven fewer people.  Because this reduction occurs in every single family throughout history, it is inevitable that you and your spouse will have a connection (actually many connections in the past).  Pedigree charts reflect these combinations.  We call this the pedigree drop.  If you research both yours and your spouses’ ancestors, you will find that you are cousins many times and will eventually find a common set of direct parent ancestors.  My wife, my  father, my mother, my adopted father I tied together directly in the year 1033.  Seems unlikely since my wife was born in Tennessee, my father’s line was from Wales, my mother’s from West Virginia.  But all tied back to Wales eventually and combined because of pedigree drop.


A generation is a set of members of a family regarded as a single step or stage of descent.  A generation is not based on age.  

There are 4 direct line generations displayed.  The color coding is a key.  Everyone with the same color within the chart (not the column to the right) are related in the same generation.  It makes a row, it is horizontal.  Thus, horizontal lines are in the same generation.  That is the key to understanding how to determine relationships.  In the Primary Line, Siblings and 1st cousins are all there is.  Your parents and aunts and uncles are in 1 horizontal generation above you.  So how do you get cousin lines and removed cousins.  All cousins are children of an aunt/uncle combination.  No exceptions.  This means that your first cousins are children of your parents’ siblings, you aunts and uncles.  The  horizontal relationship is a constant.  Every generation usually has aunts and uncles which means that every cousin, who is a child of a sibling of a direct line ancestor is a first cousin.  Wait!  How can that be?  It means that your grandparents’ siblings children are first cousins to your father, and the horizontal relationship is a constant.  So your Fathers’ first cousins are 1 generation above you.  Thus they are your first cousins once removed (removed simple is another word for generation.  This means that if your first cousin has children, they will be one generation down from you and will be your first cousins once removed.  So you can have many levels of first cousins going up and down.  What makes a second cousin.  The children of first cousin siblings would be second cousins (not removed, same generation)  Removals always cross generations.  Same generations are always horizontal.  
It sounds confusing, but really isn’t once you begin to grasp how cousin relationships are formed.  Let’s examine one case.  (Remember these are relationships to you)
Your 5th Great Grandparents had siblings. Their siblings were your 4th Great Grandfathers aunts and uncles, and the children of the aunt and uncle were 1st cousins to your 4th Great Grandparents. 
Now this set of 1st cousins had This created another generation down.  The line is horizontal.  They are 2nd Cousins.
This set of 2nd cousins had children.  Another generation down.  Horizontal line, 3rd Cousins.
Once more.  These 3rd cousins had children.  Another horizontal generation 4th cousins. 
This is at the same level as my 2nd Great Grandparents. Since there are 4 generations up until I tie into the 3rd cousins, those 3rd cousins are 3rd cousins 4 rtimes emoved  (my connection from me back to the direct line. Is (Father, Grandfather, Great Grandfather, 3rd Cousin 4 times removed, 3rd cousin 5 times removed, 3rd cousin 6 times removed, 4th Aunt (or Uncle) & 4th Great-Grandfather – Same generation, 5th Great-Grandfather.  Note that at the 4th Great-Grandfather, the extended family merged into the direct line.
There are 4 generations Up and 3 down including the primary or 1st gemeration. If you look at generations going up, each generation from the primary doubles.  Generations 2 has two, a mother and father, generation 3 has 4, and generation 4 has eight (this is binary progression).  Most people don’t realize how rapidly your direct line generations grow.  in 16 generations you would have over 65 thousand lines to research.  The average years between generations is about 27.5.  In 16 generations from year 2022), we would be looking at your direct line back to about the year 1582, four-hundred and forty years in the past!  
However, this isn’t really true.  Every marriage involves marrying someone who is a far distant (and sometimes, not far).  In a small town, almost everyone is related, and all marriages are between people who will have one or more common ancestors.  In genealogy this is called pedigree collapse.  It doesn’t take long to see it occur on pedigree charts.  I have never seen a pedigree chart that didn’t have collapse beyond the 7th generation. My wife was from Tennessee, and I was from Ohio.  But at the 9th generation we found common 6th Great-Grandparents.  No one has a line without Pedigree Collapse.  Easy to prove.  Go back 20 generations and your direct line plus aunts, uncles and cousins would have more people than lived on the earth at that time.  


Paternal simply means Male Relatives.  Maternal mean female relatives.  We often use this to describe a particular line of ancestors, especially when looking at a list of lines and we decide we want to look at Paternal lines (or Maternal). 1. Of or pertaining to a father; Received or derived from a father; hereditary; as, a paternal estate.  2. Of or pertaining to a mother; Received or derived from a mother; hereditary; as, a maternal estate.  
Have you noticed that almost every relative term is gender specific?  Brother/Sister, Father/Mother, Grandfather/Grandmother, Uncle/Aunt, Nephew/Niece.  That is everyone except cousin.  Why?  This is a mystery.  Chinese and some other languages, do have separate words for male cousin and female cousin.  Why not English?  No one knows for sure.  Plenty of opinions.  I think we should add Masin and Fesin.  (Male Cousin and Female Cousin).  What do you think?  

Ascendant - Ancestors

One from whom a person is descended, whether on the father’s or mother’s side, at any distance of time; a progenitor; a forefather.  Ascendant is usully someone from whom you are descended but usually more remote than a grandparent. An earlier or higher generation.
Even though me might use the terms Great-Great as in Great-Great Grandfather, or Great-Great Aunt. We should not.  The correct terms are 2nd Great Grandfather and 2nd Great Aunt.  The key is the number of occurances of the word “Great.” Actually your Great Grandfather could be called your 1st Great Grandfather (After all he is the 1st person in your line to have the title Great).  
Here is where we can get confused.  The number of Greats does not indicate number of generations.  Because you, your father, and grandfather are the first 3 genereations and we must add in their generations.  There is a very easy way to explain this.  Hold up your hands and start counting on the left hand your fingers as follows:

1st Finger – You

6th Finger – 3rd Great-Grandparent

2nd Finger – Parent

7th Finger – 4th Great-Grandparent

3rd Finger – Grandparent 

8th Finger- 5th Great-Grandparent

4th Finger – Great-Grandparent

9th Finger – 6th Great-Grandparent

5th Finger – 2rd Great-Grandparent

10th Finger – 7th Great-Grandparet

Each finger represented a generation.  10 fingers, 10 generations.  To determine how many generations there are including my 7th Great-Grandfather.  I had to add three generations – Me, my Father and Grandfather. 

Descent - Descendant

Descent are properties attributable to your ancestry; the descendants of one individual; one generation of a specific lineage; derivation, as from an ancestor; procedure by generation; lineage; birth; extraction. A descendant is person descended from his or her older generations.

Direct - Literal Line

Direct lines are your forefathers, your parents, your grand and great grandparent generations. Your children, grand children and great grand children and your siblings are direct-line (all connected by blood).  No other relatives such as uncles/aunts or cousins are direct line.

Extended Family

is a family that extends beyond the nuclear family, including grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other relatives. When we use this term, we usually are speaking of those persons who all live nearby or in one household.

Blood Line

Is the descendants of one individual; pedigree.  Every direct relative is a blood relative.  Blood really means shared DNA.  Aunts/Uncles/Nephews/Nieces and Cousins may also be blood relatives if they are related by birth.  This example should clarify.  Your father has a brother who has two children, Jack and Jill. Uncle Jack and Aunt Jill are blood relatives.  Why? because your grandfather is Jack’s and Jill’s Father. This is a DNA match.  Uncle Jack gets married to Betty who isn’t related.  But by marriage, she becomes your aunt. This means that in almost every extended family marriage one member of the marriage is a blood relative, the other is simply connected via marriage.  Too bad, we don’t have the terms Stepuncle, Stepaunt, Stepnephew, and Stepniece, but we don’t.

Yes, there are sometimes exceptions to the norm.  It Jack and Betty had been second cousins and were connected through a blood tie, this would make them both blood relatives to you.  


A person’s brother or sister.  (We also inlcude stepchildren and adopted children as siblings)


A cousin is a child of an Uncle and Aunt.  This is at all levels of your direct lines
Double Cousins
If two siblings in one family marry two siblings from another family and each couple has a child, the children are double first cousins. The addition of the word double to the first cousin term is because they share the same four grandparents. Regular first cousins share only one set of common grandparents, while double first cousins share both sets of grandparents plus all lineal and collateral relatives.


Cousins of different generations is explained by using the word “removed”. Saying that cousins are “once removed” means that there is a difference of one generation between cousins. For example, the first cousin of your father is your first cousin, once removed. In this case, your father’s first cousin is one generation younger than your grandparents and you are two generations younger than your grandparents. This one-generation difference is explained by saying that your are cousins “once removed.”

Twice removed means that there is a two-generation difference between cousins. If you are two generations younger than the first cousin of your grandparent, then the relationship between you and your grandparent’s first cousin are first cousins, twice removed.

My Philosophy - My Rules

This section is philosophical musings and my own rules for my own genealogy.  You may simply choose to skip this section, but if you are interested, keep reading.  First of all, let me explain, no let me summarize.  Both by Biblical and scientific evidence, we descend from a set of common ancestors, either the Biblical Adam and Eve or the DNA Adam and Eve.  In my personal viewpoint, they are the same individuals.  The Bible is a quasi-historical record of a single group of people, the Israelites.  It is of great religious and historical importance because it includes the most important person of all time – Jesus the Christ, the Redeemer and Savior of the world.  Even though Babylonians, Hittites, Romans, Assyrians and others are mentioned, their genealogies are not included in the Bible.  There have been over 20 billion people on the planet earth since Adam and Eve.  I do not ascribe to Darwin’s theories.  DNA research has proven that we all descend form one set of ancestral parents, the founders of the race of homo sapiens, and I think that this couple was created by God, not a descendant of an amoeba created when lighting struck the ocean!

Does this mean that all people living on the planet today are descendants of the DNA Adam and Eve?  Absolutely!  This means that everyone on the planet, all 8 1/2 billion are relatives.  You have never met, nor will you ever meet a person that isn’t a cousin. Because of pedigree drop, you will connect somewhere in the past.  Perhaps a person in China may connect with you 40 generations in the past, but you will eventually connect.  You might be 145 cousins 12 times removed, but still connected. Because of the pedigree drops (cousin marriages), as we go further back in time and generations, the pedigree drops become far more frequent until we end up with just two people, Adam and Eve.  You will have many, many of these drops in your pedigree.

One of the decisions we must all make in family research is what we will collect.  We will have many dead ends.  I have over 85 thousand names in my own file, including direct lines, aunts, uncles and cousins.  But for cousins, I never collect information beyond 4th cousins.  Why?  If I were to start including 5th through 8th cousins, my database would become well over a million names.  I don’t have the time to either research or enter that much information.  I had to set limits and so you will.  I will share an actual example in my own lineage showing the effect of the pedigree drops which caused multiple relationships. 

You may have heard someone say, “I am descended from Charlemagne”.  Well, most people with European ancestry are related to Charlemagne.  My computer program can give me all of my own relationship to Charlemagne – caused by different pedigree drops.  Charlemagne is my 43rd, 42nd, 41st, 40th,(8 times) 39th (4 times), 38th, and 37th Great-Grandfaher.  And this doesn’t include thousands of cousin links!  Charlemagne was born in the year 742. In that year, the entire population of Europe was only about 28 million people. Since Charlemagne lived in the Frankish Kingdom (today’s France and Germany) the pedigree drop is easily understood.

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