DIXFIELD — In an unremarkable and sparsely furnished trailer in this Oxford County town live roughly two dozen cats no one wants. Black cats with white tails. Gray tabbies with shifty eyes. Boxes of kitty litter everywhere.
There weren’t always that many. It was just a few to start, but word got out.
Five local women – sisters Brenda Jarvis and Caroline Smith along with Donna Weston, Noreen Clarke and Valerie Warriner – have been keeping the trailer as a de facto cat shelter for decades. Over the years, the two sisters and three other local women have kept things going, often by opening their own pocketbooks. They are known, affectionately, as the Dixfield Cat Ladies.
But the future of the cats is now tied to a bizarre legal battle that has stretched into its 12th year.
It’s a complicated and messy case for a number of reasons – lawyers with bad blood, allegations of conflict of interest, a plea by the state Attorney General’s Office to intervene. But at its core is a simple question: Do these cats, and their caretakers, have legal standing to an inheritance?
Back in 2002, a local woman named Barbara Thorpe, who was supportive of the cat ladies’ efforts, passed away. In her will, she bequeathed the bulk of her estate, approximately $150,000, to “providing shelter, food and health care” for the cats of Dixfield. They went from strays to unwitting heirs of a modest fortune.
Since that time, though, the cats have received only a fraction of that money.
Thorpe, perhaps realizing cats cannot realistically deposit or withdraw money from an account, appointed a personal representative for her estate, a woman named Gertrude Crosby who had been Thorpe’s friend and housekeeper.
But Crosby, according to Seth Carey, the Rumford lawyer representing the cat ladies, has refused to turn over any more money that he says is clearly meant to aid the cat ladies’ efforts.
“I think we have a pretty simple case,” Carey said.
The attorney representing Crosby, Neal Pratt, also says the case is simple. He has twice filed motions to dismiss the suit. He said the plaintiffs have no standing to sue because they were never named in the will and added that the language makes clear that Crosby has discretion over the estate.
Pratt also hinted that if Carey would drop his legal fight and let the Attorney General’s Office broker a solution, everybody may end up happy.
But despite what the two sides claim, the case is hardly simple, or it wouldn’t have dragged on this long.
“Any case involving money has the potential of getting messy,” said Deirdre Smith, a professor at the University of Maine School of Law. “I think what makes probate cases occasionally challenging is that so much can focus on what was the intent of the person who can’t weigh in. That, of course, is the deceased.”
The town motto for Dixfield, a community of 2,500 residents just south of Rumford, is “the only one,” a reference to its claim that it is the only community in the country with that name.
Jarvis, who is sort of the head cat lady, has lived there her whole life. She said the first cat took up residence at the trailer, not far from Dirigo High School, in 1974 after her mother died. By the time her father died in 1993, the trailer was home to many more cats.
Asked why she keeps taking care of the animals, Jarvis said, “Well, I know I wouldn’t want to be without a home.”
Much of her $763 Social Security check each month – she calls it her “old folks check” – goes to the cats. She and her husband, who live in their own home about 3½ miles away, eat dinner at the cat trailer every night.
Over the years, the Dixfield Cat Ladies have been quirky, local not-quite-celebrities and have supported their efforts with donations of supplies or time.
One of them was Thorpe, who had known Jarvis and Smith for decades and spent time at the trailer with the cats after her husband passed away.
Thorpe got sick in 2001 and moved into a nursing home. Around the same time, Crosby, Thorpe’s housekeeper, began to take on more duties at Thorpe’s home. She increased her housekeeping fees from $8 per hour to $100 an hour and also hired her own husband, Bentley, to help at $40 an hour, Carey alleges.
Two years earlier, Crosby also persuaded Thorpe, who had no close family, to name her as personal representative of her estate. A lawyer named David Austin drew up the paperwork in 1999.
Austin and Carey, two competing lawyers in the small town of Rumford, would develop a history – but more on that later.
After Thorpe died, the will outlined her wishes for her nearly $200,000 estate, the bulk of which came from stock in ExxonMobil.
She gave $5,000 to the Shriners Hospital and $2,000 to the local King Hiram Lodge. She gave a total of $1,000 to four different friends, some antique furniture to another friend and offered her sister-in-law right of first refusal to purchase her home.
Finally, Thorpe bequeathed the remainder of her estate “to my personal representative to use all proceeds for the creation of a corporation or trust … for the purpose of providing shelter, food and health care for abandoned and unwanted cats in the Town of Dixfield.”
That personal representative was Crosby.
As outlined, Crosby set up a charitable trust, but the will does not identify an organization or person to receive the assets and says nothing about how the money should be distributed or when.
In an affidavit Crosby filed with the lawsuit, she says she acted in “good faith to administer the trust according to Barbara’s wishes.”
She said between 2006 and 2013, a total of $12,462 was given to the cat ladies for the animals’ care. The trust was terminated in 2013 and a corporation was established instead. Since then, that corporation has made two payments to Jarvis, one for $500; the other for $250.
Jarvis said everybody in town knows what Thorpe meant when she left her money to the cats of Dixfield. She said she’s still optimistic that a judge will rule in her favor but also said she’ll keep taking care of the cats, either way.
Carey first challenged the execution of Thorpe’s will in 2005 in probate court. At the time, he was a paralegal working for his father, Thomas Carey.
He said he was compelled to take the case because it was clear the cats were not getting what was owed them and their caretakers were suffering financially as a result.
Carey also objected to the fact that Austin, who had drafted Thorpe’s will, was representing Crosby in the probate case.
“The lawyer orchestrated everything with the housekeeper,” Carey said.
The battle over the will languished in legal purgatory for more than eight years in probate court, unusual for a modest estate.
Part of the reason may be that Carey and Austin didn’t like each other and were using this case to lash out at the other.
When Carey’s law license was suspended in 2008, Austin was among those who criticized him. They were on opposite sides of a divorce case and Austin said Carey went behind his back to talk to his client.
After eight years, the court finally ruled in 2013 that the Crosbys had “not been given enough time” to execute Thorpe’s wishes involving the cats.
Carey said he let some time pass but after the cat ladies were still denied payments, he called Austin and threatened to take the matter to a higher court.
“He told me: ‘This case is over. Don’t call me again about this,’ ” Carey said.
In December 2015, Carey, on behalf of the cat ladies, sued the Crosbys and also named Austin as a defendant, alleging that the attorney benefited from the Thorpe estate by “pillaging . . . through excessive legal fees.”
Pratt, who is representing both the Crosbys and Austin, acknowledged that the case has been a mess.
“I’m trying to bring some sanity back to this,” he said. “It’s inexplicable to me how we ended up here.”
Since the case moved from probate court to Superior Court last December, the state Attorney General’s Office has even attempted to intervene. That’s where things currently stand.
Pratt said he’s supportive of the AG’s involvement if it means settling the case.
Carey, however, said if the AG’s office does get involved, he’s not convinced the cats of Dixfield will see any of their inheritance.
“You and your office mates are clearly unqualified to make the right decisions for the cats and you should be careful or your naiveté and lack of common sense often found in those who work in the government may just be exposed to the public, which I’m sure is a lot more than you’re prepared for,” the attorney wrote in a March 23 letter to the AG’s office.
There have been other high-profile court disputes involving animals inheriting estates. New York hotelier Leona Helmsley famously left $12 million to a trust to care for her dog, Trouble, a white Maltese. When Sam Simon, co-creator of “The Simpsons,” died from colon cancer last year, he dedicated his roughly $100 million estate to charitable causes, including animal rights organizations. The man who inherited Simon’s dog, a Cane Corso named Columbo, later petitioned for some of that money – $140,000 a year – to care for the dog, which has health problems.
Richard Ploss, an adjunct professor at the UMaine School of Law specializing in trusts and estates, said the Dixfield case is fascinating. He said if Thorpe had died today, or any time after 2004, she could have set up her own pet trust, but in 2002, there was no such mechanism.
He also said that if the cat ladies had their own nonprofit or their own official shelter, the funds could have been directed there. It’s noteworthy, Ploss said, that Thorpe did not identify any of the cat ladies by name in her will. Instead, she trusted Crosby to oversee the disbursement of those funds.
Ploss said Crosby, as the personal representative, would have a legally binding fiduciary duty to create the trust and to segregate those funds from her own accounts.
He also said Crosby would be required to invest those funds and submit annual reports. None of those reports has been entered into court, but Ploss said if the case goes to trial, he expects the judge to ask for a full accounting of the trust.
Ploss said that without knowing all the particulars of the case, his opinion was that the cat ladies may not have legal standing because they are not specifically named in the will.
On that point, Pratt agrees.
“They are very well-intentioned ladies, I’m sure, but it’s clear to me that the trustee has the discretion,” he said.
Ploss did say that the town of Dixfield, which is named in Thorpe’s will, likely has a better claim.
Pratt, the attorney for Crosby, said his goal is to settle the case in a way where “the cats can ultimately receive the benefit Thorpe had in mind.”
He said the longer it goes on, the more likely that any money left in the trust will go to lawyers.
Jarvis, who spoke about the legal case last week from the trailer while cats sauntered through, said she doesn’t worry too much about that. She hopes that a judge will decide what’s right and she’ll live with the decision, although she said the money would certainly help.
As she spoke, a cat climbed up onto her lap. Another nestled on top of a dormant stove. A third crouched under a kitchen table and deposited a pungent pile. Jarvis knelt down and with one swift motion, cleaned up the cat poop with a paper towel and put it in the trash.