March 13, 2008 -- ROCHESTER, N.Y. (AP) - A woman born out of wedlock to a direct descendant of the family that struck it rich marketing Jell-O more than a century ago has been denied what she considers her just desserts.
The Court of Appeals, New York's highest court, ruled Thursday that Elizabeth McNabb of Longview, Wash., cannot share in the multimillion-dollar estate of her late mother, Barbara Woodward Piel.
Piel's grandfather, Orator Francis Woodward, bought the Jell-O trademark in 1899 from inventor Pearle Bixby Wait and, within a decade, turned it into a million-dollar business. Thus was born a ubiquitous 20th-century American dessert, a wobbly standby at church potlucks, school cafeterias and summer camps.
Piel became pregnant in 1955 after a liaison with a married man and put the child - later named Elizabeth McNabb - up for adoption in Oregon. She later married and had two other daughters.
At age 19, McNabb embarked on a long quest to find her birth mother. She finally traced her birth certificate through a court order in 1988 and learned about her family history during a four-day visit with Piel in rural Genesee County near Rochester.
After Piel's death in 2003, McNabb was told two trusts established in 1926 and 1963 barred her from sharing in the family fortune. A county surrogate judge decided in December 2005 that, as an "adopted-out" child, McNabb was not a descendant or child of Piel under the terms of the trust.
An appellate court in Rochester reversed that decision a year ago, effectively awarding McNabb a one-third share. It determined the trusts predated amendments to New York law dictating that an adopted child could not inherit from a biological parent unless it was clear the parent planned to include the child among descendants.
The appeals court in Albany disagreed, saying there's no evidence in the legislative history, even before the amendments, indicating that a child put up for adoption should share in an inheritance.
The Jell-O brand is now owned by Kraft Foods Inc.