If you ever thought of researching your family history, the best family tree makers are essential software that can help you navigate the mass of documents, photographs, relationships, and half-remembered names that make up the bulk of the work. Some even have built-in research tools to help out.
While we recommend using the best genealogy sites to do most of the actual research, once you’ve collated this information, and laid it out in the traditional tree that shows the generations of your family that preceded you, then the best family tree makers also help you to display it in different ways, perhaps focusing on one particular individual, or tracing a particular surname through the births, deaths, and marriages of people who lived hundreds of years ago.
Where once discovering this information may have meant poring over dusty manuscripts in libraries, great books in churches, or teasing it from the brains of aged relatives, today there are many online sources for this kind of information. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for instance, maintains a comprehensive and free to use site that many desktop applications can plug in to, while there are paid-for services that search and may have digitized copies of military records, civil records, and marriages carried out in various churches.
There’s even a special file format dedicated to genealogical data - GEDCOM. Thanks to this, family trees created in one application can often be transferred to another, making it easy to share your discoveries with your relatives. Family tree makers are a broad range of applications that may be free or paid for, and pull their information from diverse sources, even including DNA testing kits.
1. Family Historian 6: Best family tree maker overall
If your main reason for doing genealogy is to record and tell your family's story, then Family Historian is your best family tree software option. It imports perfectly accurate data from GEDCOM files (which makes it easy to incorporate data collected by other family members) and its interface is incredibly easy to use. Its scrapbooking tools are also effective and easy to find. In addition, Family Historian’s integration with online databases makes it a powerful genealogy tool.
During tests we imported two very large records and two smaller records, created specifically to test each program’s ability to interpret tricky information, such as same-sex marriages, polygamist families and mixed families. Each of these records included media files, memories, notes, burial locations and more. Family Historian interpreted the data and incorporated the records into its format without flaw. If someone else in your family has done a lot of research already, this is the best program for incorporating their records into your own.
Family Historian is easy to navigate, with almost no learning curve. Also, the tabbed menus make data entry quick and effortless because you don't have to open new windows for every piece of information you want to enter. It's also one of the few programs with a time-saving undo/redo feature. In terms of cost - it's middle of the pack, but represents excellent value at around $50 for a one-off license.
- Read our Family Historian 6 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: Easy links to research tools
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.
It’s the app’s multiple ways of displaying the data you’ve entered that 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 maker for accuracy
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 2020). 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. 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. You can build a basic family tree here, and while it doesn't look all that fancy, you'll get a good sense of how the branches flow and how your family is structured. It's very easy to use, although does seem to be lacking in features.
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. 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
Sharing research is a major part of successful genealogy work. To do this, you create a GEDCOM file, a universal format for recording genealogy records. It allows you to incorporate research from others, such as a great aunt or a cousin, into your own database. However, while GEDCOM files are universal, not all programs accurately interpret their data.
To test the apps’ accuracy, we used GEDCOM files of Irish kings and U.S. presidents. Then we created a GEDCOM file based on my own family tree and a fictional file based on characters from my favorite TV show. The purpose of the first two records was to test the breadth of the program, as each file had thousands of names and hundreds of families. The other two records were made to be as difficult as possible – they included same-sex marriages, polygamist relationships and complicated mixed families. Each of these GEDCOM files included media files, notes, memories, web links and more.
The amount of information in these GEDCOM files was staggering, making it all the more impressive when two programs emerged with perfect results. The biggest problem programs had was excluding huge swaths of information from a family line based on one problematic entry. Another issue was errors in the media files and missing notes. Often, the data was still available, but the connections had to be re-stitched.
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. Genealogy is about much more than collecting dates and names – it’s also about telling your family story; displaying family connections on a visual chart; and tracking down pictures, videos, audio, family memories, life events, health records, facts and other notes. The best genealogy programs put their chart options and scrapbooking tools front and center so you don’t have to dig to find them.
How much do family tree makers cost?
We tested family tree makers that cost an average of $46, making it more cost-effective than paying a monthly fee to use a genealogy website. If you opt for genealogy software the only ongoing costs are for software updates or upgrades, which costs roughly $20 depending on the service.
If you go down the online route, you can pay up to $25 per month for a service like Ancestry... but you are getting the best research AND a family tree maker too, so it's well worth doing if you are still researching your heritage.
Why should you use Family Tree software at all?
Why buy genealogy software? The software doesn't come with 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.
Should you combine family tree software with DNA kits?
While genealogy software can do a lot to help you reveal your family’s history, it is still fallible since you may be missing information or have some incorrect details. For example, there are many stories about people taking DNA tests for fun only to find out that the person they thought was their father isn’t. Without this accurate paternity information, it is impossible to fill in correct genealogical data.
On the flip side, getting one of the best DNA testing kits is also worth it if you don’t know anything about one or more of your parents and want to learn about where you come from. Similarly, a consumer DNA test is also beneficial if you are multiracial – it can reveal a detailed breakdown of your heritage, including information about which continents and countries your DNA originates from. Also, depending on which test you purchase, you may find out what percentage of your biological makeup comes from each region. This can help you focus your genealogy research.
Consumer DNA tests are fun and educational. Though the process has inherent risks, the information the tests provide can help you fill out your genealogy correctly. They can also bring your family closer together and even inspire future travel plans.