Court: Jell-O Heir Put Up for Adoption Can't Have Share of Family Fortune

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 deserts.

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. Piel soon 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.

McNabb's attorney, Paul Boylan, described her reaction as stoic. "She was on her way to work and was going to continue to go to work and live out the rest of her life," he said.

"The amount involved here is about $12 million," said attorney A. Vincent Buzard, who represented McNabb's half-sisters. "If Elizabeth McNabb had been specifically named in the trust, even though adopted-out, she could have shared in this, but she wasn't named."

Wait, a carpenter in Le Roy, N.Y., mixed fruit flavoring into gelatin and began selling the sweet concoction door-to-door in March 1897.

His wife christened it Jell-O. Door-to-door sales never picked up, so Wait sold Jell-O to Woodward for $450. When Wait died in 1915 at age 44, his widow had to take in sewing jobs and boarders to feed the family.

The Jell-O brand is now owned by Kraft Foods Inc.