By Betty Malesky
Usually we all have a number of living persons included in our genealogy. Sooner or later, many of us will publish our ancestry, either on paper or on the Internet. Living persons require special treatment, particularly before uploading a genealogy file to the Web.
We need to be discreet in disclosing information about siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, or any other relatives we may include who are still alive.
We don’t want to be the object of a lawsuit for defamation or invasion of privacy because we disclosed information about a relative that he/she considers personal or privileged information.
One can wind up the object of a lawsuit even if the facts divulged are true. Illegitimacy, divorce or a mental disorder may be public record, but that does not automatically give you the right to spread the word to the world if the person(s) involved is/are still alive.
Even if we do not expect a wide audience for a publication, we must still respect our relative’s right to privacy about their personal lives. An email message or a post to a blog today could wind up with hundreds of readers over time. With today’s search engines, nothing on the Internet can be considered private.
People today are wary of identity theft, which is another reason it is unwise to put relatives’ birth and marriage dates online even if they do not object.
Linking a living person to his/her parents is also unwise. The obvious solution is to not include any living persons in a family tree posted online.
For example, assume you are posting a computerized family tree that includes your deceased grandparents and their eight children, three of whom are still alive. Alter your data output before posting by removing the names and any data about the living. Indicate living offspring by simply changing their names to “Living” and removing all other information about them.
If you are publishing a book and would like to include as many descendants as possible, contact those who are still alive. Tell them what you are doing and ask their written permission to be included in your publication.
If they object, they will let you know. If they give you permission, retain it in your files and go ahead with your project without having to worry about offending someone.
If you plan to include details beyond vital information, be sure to inform your relative(s) so that their permission to publish includes every detail being considered. While they may be aware that they inherited the family’s genetic tendency to a particular condition or disease, they may not want it broadcast to the world at large.
When in doubt about what you are doing, ask yourself, “Is it legal and is it ethical?” If the answer is that it’s legal but not right, revise your plan and keep the information in your personal files closed to the public.
Some persons may have no problem sharing the challenges of dealing with a particular disease, such as Parkinson’s, inherited blindness, cancer or early-onset Alzheimer’s. Others would be appalled to know their affliction was common knowledge.
Remember to always contact each living relative before including him/her in your genealogical publication. The worst that can happen is they say “no” and cause you to modify your planned publication.