‘We may have something in common’: Gifts of DNA tests spur paternity surprises, lawsuits

DNA tests like 23andMe and Ancestry.com are leading to surprising paternity discoveries for some families.


Vanner Johnson’s wife, Donna, had purchased the take-home genetic testing kit 23andMe for fun. But when her husband received his family’s 23andMe results in August 2019, he noticed something odd. His 11-year-old son, Tim, wasn’t listed as his biological relative. The couple soon learned that the hospital where Donna had undergone in vitro fertilization (IVF) 12 years earlier had likely mixed up the sperm samples. Vanner wasn’t Tim’s biological dad.

“There were so many questions with no answers,” said Donna. “We had no idea who our son’s biological father was.” When the Johnsons finally tracked down Tim’s biological dad early last year, using a second DNA test and some strategic Googling, they learned he had been another patient at the fertility clinic.

“It was actually almost comforting when we discovered it was another patient, it was like, ‘at least it wasn’t the doctor,’” Donna explained.

The Johnsons’ story is one of many paternity secrets that have come to light in recent years as the popularity of take-home genetic tests has exploded. In September and October 2021, 23andMe’s website sales shot up more than 47 percent, according to data from the analytics firm Bloomberg Second Measure. Some fertility lawyers said that they tended to see more of these cases after family members gave these tests as holiday gifts.

Vanner and Donna Johnson with their sons Vanner, left, and Tim.
Vanner and Donna Johnson with their sons Vanner, left, and Tim. Kim Raff for NBC News

“I have seen a substantial increase in these cases over the past few years,” said Adam B. Wolf, an attorney specializing in fertility fraud lawsuits. “Our clients typically call in February, after receiving the results of the at-home DNA tests they receive for the holidays.”

Medical breach

In 2020, Beverly Willhelm, one of Wolf’s clients, filed a lawsuit against her fertility doctor Phillip M. Milgram after she discovered that he’d used his own sperm to impregnate her, rather than the sperm of an ano

Like Vanner Johnson, Willhelm realized what had happened after her son took a 23andMe test. “Plaintiff’s son is the result of Defendant’s medical rape of Plaintiff,” the complaint reads. “Plaintiff is shocked and devastated by Defendant’s abuse of his power to violate her trust.”

Milgram’s lawyer, Curtis Greer, did not respond to a phone and email request for comment. But the case is scheduled for jury trial April 29.

Most of the paternity discoveries that have made headlines in recent years follow a similar pattern. “We’ve represented roughly two dozen women who went to their fertility doctor expecting to get sperm from someone they knew or an anonymous donor, only to learn later, either through 23andMe or Ancestry.com, that the doctor took the liberty of inserting his own sperm into his unsuspecting female patients without authorization or consent,” said Wolf. “It’s a serious invasion of bodily autonomy.”

In a statement, 23andMe communications director Andy Kill said, “With genetic testing readily available to consumers, we are increasingly hearing stories of families discovering and reuniting with newfound relatives, and of customers finding unexpected results in their reports. Although 23andMe was not designed specifically to help people confirm parentage or find biological parents, our DNA Relatives tool does help people find and connect with participating genetic relatives. This feature is completely optional, meaning customers must actively choose to participate and are informed up front that by using the tool, they may discover unexpected relationships.”

The company also said its customer care team is specifically trained to help customers who learn about unexpected family members through using the service.

Vanner Johnson hold his newborn son, Tim, as his brother, Vanner, looks on.
Vanner Johnson holds his newborn son, Tim, as his brother, Vanner, looks on.Courtesy Vanner Johnson

Tracing paternity

In 2020, Tim Johnson did a second DNA test, this time through Ancestry.com. Through that test, he ultimately connected with Devin McNeil, a father of three living in Colorado, and called him. “We may have something in common through IVF,” he told Devin. Vanner asked if McNeil and his wife, Kelly, had undergone IVF through the University of Utah Center for Reproductive Medicine. He said yes. The couples realized they’d likely been at the clinic on the same day in 2007.

“Every piece of information just unfolded really without question, the timing, the testing,” Devin said. “So it wasn’t very long before it was hard to not believe it.”

Vanner and Tim Johnson and Devin McIntyre at their first meeting.
Vanner and Tim Johnson, and Devin McNeil at their first meeting.Courtesy Vanner Johnson

The University of Utah Center for Reproductive Medicine did not respond to a request for comment from NBC News.



%d bloggers like this: