“Adopted-Out” Child Loses Out On Millions From Jell-O Fortune

This interesting read at Trusts & Estate.com tells the story of Elizabeth McNabb of Longview, Wash.:

In 1889, Orator Francis Woodward purchased the rights to JELL-O gelatin for $450. In 1926 and 1963, his daughter Florence created two irrevocable trusts for the lifetime benefit of her daughter, Barbara Woodward Piel, and upon Barbara’s death, for the benefit of Barbara’s “descendants” and “living “child[ren]”.

Barbara died in July of 2003. In October 2004, Fleet Bank instituted proceedings for judicial settlement of the trusts’ final accounts. The total amount of trust principal at stake was about $9.7 million.

Barbara had three daughters. The first, Elizabeth McNabb, was born out-of-wedlock in 1955—the result of an affair with a married man. Within days of the birth, Barbara relinquished her parental rights and consented to Elizabeth’s adoption by strangers. (There was no evidence presented that the grandmother Florence Woodward knew of Elizabeth’s birth or adoption.) Barbara’s other two daughters, Stobie Piel and Lila Piel-Pullman, were born of her marriage to Michael Piel.

According to news reports about the case, Elizabeth began her quest to locate her birth family in 1974. She finally uncovered her birth mother’s identity, Barbara Woodward of Rochester, New York, in 1988 when she located a copy of her birth certificate. She then telephoned every Woodward in a Rochester telephone book, ultimately locating her mother’s cousin who provided Elizabeth with her mother’s married name. Elizabeth contacted Barbara, and they developed a relationship. After Barbara’s death in 2003, Fleet Bank contacted Elizabeth and requested proof of her relationship with Barbara. But the bank apparently later decided that Elizabeth was not entitled to a share of the trusts benefiting Barbara’s children.

The story ends with In the Matter of the Accounting by Fleet Bank, as Trustee of the Trust f/b/o Barbara W. Piel, 2008 WL 656471 (N.Y.), 2008 N.Y. Slip Op. 02082, March 13, 2008 and a ruling that Ms. McNabb is not entitled to receive any of the trusts’ income or principal.

The court emphasized the public policy considerations underlying Best of “fully assimilating the adopted child into the adoptive family and . . . the importance of keeping adoption records confidential.”

The court also expressed concern regarding the “lurking possibility” of “secret out-of-wedlock” children compromising the finality of judicial verdicts. Whereas, in this case, Elizabeth proactively intervened in the trustee’s accounting action, in other cases, the family might not know of the adopted child, thereby placing an “onerous” burden on a trustee to search out unknown potential beneficiaries.

The court said its ruling did not depend on Elizabeth’s status as a non-marital child and therefore did not implicate any equal protection concerns. It also said that to side with the appellate court would create two classes of adopted persons: those that could inherit from both biological and adoptive parents because the instrument was executed prior to 1964 when state law changed, and those cut off from the biological family because the instrument was executed after that date.

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