The best family tree makers come in a range of forms, from purely online platforms to dedicated software programs that are only accessible via desktop. We’ve tried and tested the biggest names on the market, evaluating them for things like ease of use, export options and accuracy when importing GEDCOM files (the most commonly used file type in genealogical research.)
When you’re trying to pick the best family tree maker, you need to consider how much genealogical information you already have. If you have plenty of data regarding your familial relationships, then make sure you choose one of the options that scored highly on import accuracy. If you are still in the process of collating data, then opt for a family tree creator that is integrated with one of the best genealogy sites, as this will give you access to records and files that you might not have seen before.
A quick warning on family tree generators: a lot of the software can appear quite dated. It’s still very easy to navigate these programs, but they don’t always produce the most modern-looking visuals. Those who are looking to preserve their history in a more aesthetically pleasing manner may want to consider collating stories and images in one of the best photo books available in 2021. These physical albums provide an easy way for you to record family history – and to pass those records on to future generations.
And as a final note, a lot of these family tree makers can also be used in conjunction with the best DNA testing kits, if you’re looking to widen your research even further.
1. Family Historian 7: Best family tree maker overall
Family Historian is one of the biggest names in genealogy software - and for good reason. When we’ve tested the software by importing GEDCOM records, it performed flawlessly, accurately interpreting tricky data relating to things like polygamist families and same-sex marriages. A lot of other programs struggled to represent these types of relationships, which is why Family Historian has earned the top spot in our list.
It also has an easy to navigate interface, which allows you to quickly and efficiently add data and images into your sprawling family tree. And the fact that it integrates with online databases, like MyHeritage, makes it a powerful genealogical tool. You’ll often find nudges and suggestions appearing on your tree, when the software thinks it has found a distant ancestor that you might be related to.
A new edition of the software has brought some much needed upgrades. You now have more text formatting options, so you can do things like change font color and size. There are also new tools for serious genealogists, relating to source citation and data entry flows, along with a wide range of new language options.
There are only two main flaws we could find with the software: it has a dated aesthetic and it’s not compatible with smartphones or Macs. Family tree makers often have slightly dated interfaces, so we haven’t counted this against the product. But if you’re someone who likes to have access to your family tree on the go via your cell, or you’re on an Apple product, you might have to opt for our second favourite family tree making software.
- Read our Family Historian 7 review
2. Ancestry.com: Best online family tree maker
While there are many specialized software packages for creating family trees, we found that one of the easiest to use is part of your Ancestry.com subscription. This has the added advantage of allowing you to build as you research, all within the same program, and you can actually work from the tree first. Starting a basic family tree, going from yourself to your parents to your grandparents will often generate 'matches' within Ancestry, that appear as leaves on your family tree. Simply clicking these leaves will take you to records within Ancestry.com that could inform and fill-out your tree. So, you research while you build the actual tree. There is also the option to input all data manually, or via GEDCOM files too.
Ancestry has all kinds of features for researching, and the tree builder is very, very simple to use. However, it's mainly functional, rather than being something you can print out and hang on a wall, which is why we haven't listed it in the top spot of our guide. Sure, you can share it easily, and populate it with images and info in the same way that other family tree packages allow you to do, but it isn't pretty.
Still, we love how easy it is, and if you're not looking for a physical copy of your tree, we heartily recommend Ancestry, as it's easily the most powerful software when it comes to building and researching the tree itself.
- Read our full Ancestry.com review
3. Family Tree Heritage Gold: Best family tree maker for collaborative projects
With the ability to work collaboratively, as well as import GEDCOM files, Family Tree Heritage Gold is a great choice as a family tree maker. It’s heavily linked to the FamilySearch site, and can synchronize its records with those you’ve found there, but despite the ability to send a search term to other sites such as Ancestry.com, the addition of records you find elsewhere is a manual process.
The app’s ability to display your data in different ways, from the traditional tree, to lists of names, to views that concentrate on individuals, is a strong feature, while the option to save photos, supporting documents, and even sound clips as a scrapbook is a nice touch.
What really lets Family Tree Heritage Gold down is the clunky interface, which is really in need of an update for the Windows 10 era. The toolbar contains buttons that seem to duplicate one another (what’s the difference between Find and Search anyway?) and setting up a FamilySearch account from within the app simply doesn’t work. There’s plenty of help, though, and the developer’s website contains tutorials to lead you through all the common family tree building tasks.
Along with the collaborative functionality, the app’s multiple ways of displaying data should attract people to Family Tree Heritage Gold. Once you’ve built your tree, you can zoom in on individuals and populate their entries with loads of interesting information about their lives and relationships.
- Read our full Family Tree Heritage Gold review
4. Legacy Family Tree: Best family tree maker for accurate imports
Legacy Family Tree did well in tests because of its excellent data management and research tools. The interface is very dated, and the website is terrible, but it's very effective and easy to use. Most importantly, Legacy Family Tree was one of only two programs with 100% accuracy in GEDCOM tests. This, along with its lower price point, make it a good value family tree maker.
In our GEDCOM import tests, we used four genealogical records to gauge how well each program interpreted this universal genealogical file format. Legacy Family Tree and Family Historian were the only programs that earned perfect scores.
Legacy Family Tree gets top-marks for navigation and data entry - its interface is pleasantly simple, not overwhelming like many of the programs we reviewed. This makes it easy to manage data, especially when there's so much to get lost in. We also like the automatic warnings the software gives when you enter possibly-incorrect information, such as if a parent was too young at the entered marriage date or too old at death.
- Read our full Legacy Family Tree review
5. Family Tree Maker: Best family tree maker for beginners
Family Tree Maker is a great tool for compiling a family free, and it has had some big improvements for the 2019 edition (which is the latest version, even in 2021). What's new for the latest version? You get to undo the last 1000 changes (called Turn Back Time), and there's a cloud-based service that allows you to store your tree online and let multiple people edit it. You also get smaller data fields like historical weather and next of kin details, which were missing from the previous 2017 version.
In our tests, Family Tree Maker performed well for data entry efficiency, scrapbooking tools and ease-of-use. Very few features require you open new windows, eliminating the possibility of getting lost in a sea of data. Charting is also easy so if you've never used software like this before, the learning curve is small. The scrapbooking features are also right at the top of the interface, where you can add photos, videos and other material to flesh out your family's story.
On the negative side, this software is expensive, there are no warnings for when it thinks the content you are entering is inaccurate, and there is a real problem with the MacKiev website. When you try to buy Family Tree Maker you are bombarded with unskippable messages encouraging you to buy add-ons. We actually laughed out loud when after about 20 add-ons we were offered the chance to purchase an Ancestry mug before we could check out. Easily one of the worst shopping experiences we've ever seen on any website.
- Read our full Family Tree Maker review
6. MyHeritage: Best family tree maker for free printing options
If you want to get a flavour of family tree making then the Family Tree Builder from MyHeritage is a good starting point. It’s free to sign up and you can give away as much or as little information when you start, including photos and notes on physical description. As you build your tree you can zoom in on people and populate their record with further information.
The interface is reminiscent of Windows 95 but is nonetheless fairly easy to navigate, with helpful hints to guide you (including Smart Matches which flag a match with a relative on your own tree and another person’s family tree) and the option to input all data manually, or via GEDCOM files. A nice touch is the option to visualise, print or download your family tree in a variety of formats to put on the wall. You also have the option to order a DNA testing kit to find out your ethnic origins.
Family Tree Builder’s integration with online databases makes it a powerful genealogy tool to guide you toward new family links, the downside being that to actually link any search results you’ll need to pay. There are 13 billion records so if you don’t have too much information about a person you might have a hard time finding them. This isn’t one of the top family tree makers but it is a good introductory tool.
- Read our full MyHeritage review
7. FamilySearch: Best free family tree maker
If you want to put together a basic family tree, and you don't need to do much extra research, then FamilySearch is a good option. It's free to sign up, and you don't need to give away too much information when you first get there, so it's ideal for anyone curious about genealogy. New updates on the site mean that you can view your family tree in a variety of ways now: landscape, portrait, by descendants, or in a fan-like arrangement, as shown above.
We tested it with the family history of a staff member, and the software really struggled to represent the idea of divorce, step-siblings, and other non-traditional family settings. Recent updates mean that it is possible to create these relationships, but it's certainly not straightforward. We also found it severely lacking when it came to suggestions and additional information - this is definitely something to pair with other research resources (although, if you're using the free family tree maker on Ancestry, why would you use this at all?).
While it is free, we wouldn't recommend this for experienced genealogists who want to bring all their data together. Try it, get the hang of creating trees, then upgrade to something more flexible and with more features.
How we tested family tree makers
We used a variety of GEDCOM files to test the family tree makers; we uploaded the family history of Irish kings and U.S. presidents, along with details of our own families. The first two sets of GEDCOM files were purposefully large and complex, while the personal family histories were a lot smaller but contained more difficult relationships (such as same-sex marriages and polygamist relationships.)
Only two programs were able to perfectly interpret these files: Family Historian and Legacy Family Tree. The other programs had issues handling this much data; some completely scrapped the data, if it disliked one particular entry, while other programs retained the data but had not accurately formatted it. As such, we often found ourselves entering relationships and connections by hand.
We also evaluated how easy each program is to use by looking closely at its interface design and data entry process. The easiest programs are modeless – you don’t have to open a new window for every tool or feature you want to use. Instead, you enter data in an interface that uses floating tabs and adjustable modules in a single window. This process requires fewer mouse-clicks, so it saves time. Overall, modeless interfaces have shallower learning curves and help novices become experts quicker. In addition, we evaluated the programs’ charting capabilities and scrapbooking tools, which allow you to collate and organize images and other non-typical data.
How family trees work
Simply put, family trees work by you starting with your own name then drawing out your relationships. So, writing your name at the bottom, you would work backwards, placing down the details of your parents, then their parents, and so on - until you run out of family history. You can see how this works visually in the images, above.
It’s worth noting that there are several formatting rules to family trees. Typically, you would place female relatives on the right of a branch, and male relatives on the left. Spouses’ parents often aren’t included in family trees as they aren’t blood relatives. But family trees are personal artefacts, so you should feel free to build yours how you like. The most important thing is that they’re easy to read.
You can hand-draw family trees, but often when you’re mapping out several generations it’s useful to have the data safely stored somewhere. This is where the best family tree makers come in handy, as they allow you to keep track of all those complicated familial ties in one single database.
Still struggling to trace your ancestors? Well, we also have a handy guide on how genealogy works, which has a few suggestions on where to look for your past relatives. And we also have a guide available if you need more information on how to map out your family tree.
Why should you use Family Tree software at all?
Why buy genealogy software? The software doesn't always come with access to a database of names and records. If you have to access a database to do research anyway, why not use a service to build your family tree?
We asked Simon Orde, director at Family Historian, the same question: Why is genealogy software still relevant? While he praises online genealogy services as a vital part of the genealogy industry that connects people with vast databases of names and records, he draws a stark line between the value of genealogy software and that of genealogy services. Desktop software, he explains, "allows customers to store their own data on their own PC, under their own control."
It may seem like a small detail, but there are big implications. Namely, when you use a cloud-based database, the information isn't yours to control or maintain. When you put your family history together in a desktop genealogy program, you not only own the data, but you own the process. It makes you more invested in your family’s story.
Doing genealogy is like being a detective. This is part of the appeal for many people – building an ancestor's life story through small clues and fractured information. To do this, you can't limit yourself to one database. However, genealogy services lock you into a subscription with complicated user agreements and intellectual property issues, making it difficult to do cross-database research.
If you're like a detective, online services limit the scope of your detecting. Orde illustrates this by pointing out that services only provide hints within their own database – you don't get hints about records on other databases. For example, Ancesty.com doesn’t direct you to MyHeritage.com or other sites, even if the information may further your research. But with software, you get hints and matches for individuals on multiple databases.
The cloud-based nature of online genealogy services means other users can change information. While citing information is good practice, an online user doesn't necessarily need to cite the reason for changing data. For example, a few years ago, someone changed my grandfather's death date on a popular ancestry service's database. My father had to go through the process of fixing the altered date, showing he had firsthand experience and citing the death certificate before the date was corrected. As it turned out, the person who altered the date had mistaken my grandfather for someone with a similar name. Not an uncommon issue with databases.
A Living Record
Another reason to buy genealogy software is to build a record of living relatives. Marcia Helzer, a retired school teacher and volunteer indexer for FamilySearch.org for the last eight years, emphasizes how genealogy is a living record. It should focus as much your living relatives as it does your ancestors. But this is difficult to do with online services because it may violate living individuals’ privacy. Online databases, she argues, are great for building backward but not for building forward. In an era where identity theft is a real concern, a privately managed database on your computer is the safer option.