The cancer risk is unknown for those families in which a microsatellite instable tumour is neither explained by MLH1 promoter methylation nor by a germline mutation in a mismatch repair (MMR) gene. Such information is essential for genetic counselling. Families suspected of Lynch syndrome (n = 614) were analysed for microsatellite instability, MLH1 promoter methylation and/or germline mutations in MLH1, MSH2, MSH6, and PMS2. Characteristics of the 76 families with a germline mutation (24 MLH1, 2 PMS2, 32 MSH2, and 18 MSH6) were compared with those of 18 families with an unexplained microsatellite instable tumour. The mean age at diagnosis of the index patients in both groups was comparable at 44 years. Immunohistochemistry confirmed the loss of an MMR protein. Together this suggests germline inactivation of a known gene. The Amsterdam II criteria were fulfilled in 50/75 families (66%) that carried a germline mutation in an MMR gene and in only 2/18 families (11%) with an unexplained microsatellite instable tumour (P<0.0001). Current diagnostic strategies can detect almost all highly penetrant MMR gene mutations. Patients with an as yet unexplained microsatellite instable tumour likely carry a different type of mutation that confers a lower risk of cancer for relatives.