Mark Fass of the New York Law Journal reported in N.Y. High Court Finds Adopted-Out Child Has No Claim to Jell-O Fortune on an interesting case determining the inheritance rights of a woman given up for adoption by her birth mother. I’ve written about this case before [click here]. In Florida the answer when it comes to adopted-out children is clear: subject to a few specific exceptions, an adopted-out child is not considered an heir of the birth mother. Here’s the relevant Florida statute:
(1) For the purpose of intestate succession by or from an adopted person, the adopted person is a descendant of the adopting parent and is one of the natural kindred of all members of the adopting parent’s family, and is not a descendant of his or her natural parents, nor is he or she one of the kindred of any member of the natural parent’s family or any prior adoptive parent’s family, except that:
(a) Adoption of a child by the spouse of a natural parent has no effect on the relationship between the child and the natural parent or the natural parent’s family.
(b) Adoption of a child by a natural parent’s spouse who married the natural parent after the death of the other natural parent has no effect on the relationship between the child and the family of the deceased natural parent.
(c) Adoption of a child by a close relative, as defined in s. 63.172(2), has no effect on the relationship between the child and the families of the deceased natural parents.
For me the inheritance rights of adopted-out heirs are relatively easy to figure out. What is much more difficult for courts to figure out are the inheritance rights of heirs conceived as a result of new developments in assisted reproductive technology [click here], or inheritance rights based on advanced DNA testing [click here]. Now that’s hard.
Coming back to the linked-to story out of N.Y. When reading the following excerpt, aside from the substantive-law issues regarding inheritance rights of adopted-out heirs, I was struck by the roller coaster ride that litigation can be for clients and counsel alike. The poor woman at the center of this case went from a trial-court ruling holding that she didn’t get a dime of the fortune created by her biological great grandfather, to an intermediate appellate decision reversing the trial court and ruling she was entitled to an approximately $3.5 million share of the estate, to a final appellate ruling swinging back to the original ruling that gave her nothing. I think there’s a lesson in here somewhere about litigation in general, but that’s for a later day. OK, so here’s the excerpt from N.Y. High Court Finds Adopted-Out Child Has No Claim to Jell-O Fortune:
The daughter of an heir to the Jell-O fortune, who spent 14 years looking for her birth mother, is not entitled to a multimillion-dollar share of two disputed trusts, the New York Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.
In a separate ruling Thursday involving two joined cases, Matter of Adult Home at Erie Station, 21, and Regional Economic Community Action Program v. Bernaski, 22, the state’s highest court ruled that an Orange County city improperly denied tax exemptions to a home for the elderly and a social work organization devoted to the poor.
In the disputed trusts decision, Matter of the Accounting by Fleet Bank, 27, the court reversed the Appellate Division, 4th Department, finding that the law in effect at the time of the execution of the trusts, in 1926 and 1963, does not imply the right for an adopted-out child to share in a class gift.
The unanimous court also found that public policy precludes office manager Elizabeth McNabb, 52, from receiving shares of two trusts created to benefit her birth mother’s "descendants" and "living children."
Citing the court’s own 1985 decision Matter of Best, 66 NY2d 151, Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye wrote, "As the Court noted, the finality of judicial decrees would be compromised if adopted-out children were included in such class gifts ‘because there would always lurk the possibility, no matter how remote, that a secret out-of-wedlock child had been adopted out of the family by a biological parent or ancestor of a class of beneficiaries.’"
McNabb was born out of wedlock, and her mother consented to her adoption by strangers. She began her quest to find her birth family in 1974, at age 19. She finally uncovered the identity of her mother, Barbara Woodward of Rochester, N.Y., in 1988, when she uncovered a copy of her birth certificate from a Salem, Ore., vital-statistics office.
McNabb then called every Woodward in a Rochester phone book, finally hitting upon a cousin of her mother who passed on Ms. Woodward’s married name, Barbara W. Piel.
Piel’s grandfather, Francis Woodward, purchased the rights to the gelatin he would soon rename Jell-O in 1899 for $450.
McNabb called Piel, and the two soon developed a relationship. Shortly after Piel’s death in 2003, McNabb received a phone call from a Fleet Bank trustee, requesting proof of her relationship to the late Piel.
After the bank determined that McNabb was not entitled to a share of the trusts benefitting Piel’s children, she intervened in the Surrogate Court’s settlement of the trusts.
In December 2005, Monroe County Surrogate Judge Edmund A. Cavalruso decreed that McNabb did not constitute a "descendant" or "child" of her birth mother and therefore was not an intended beneficiary.
Last March, the 4th Department reversed, effectively granting McNabb an approximately $3.5 million share of the two trusts.
Thursday, the Court of Appeals again reversed, holding that McNabb is in fact not entitled to any part of the trusts intended to benefit her birth mother’s children.