When Barbara Thorpe died in 2002, she left the bulk of her $200,000 estate “for the purpose of providing shelter, food and health care for abandoned and unwanted cats in the town of Dixfield.”

Over the past 13 years, however, no more than a few thousand dollars have been disbursed for the cats’ care.

Lawyers have collected over $16,000.

And $22,679 was paid to the estate’s trustees, including Thorpe’s former housekeeper turned executrix.

In 2004, Oxford County Probate Court Judge Dana Hanley found the trustees’ fees excessive and capped them at 10 percent of the estate. The trustees were ordered to return $2,931, an amount which then paid a portion of the attorney’s fees for the town of Dixfield.

Meanwhile, five women who have been caring for stray cats — some of whom have been doing this work for more than 30 years — are cashing their Social Security checks and using savings to buy food and litter, heat two homes for the cats and put gas in their cars to feed and check on feral cats throughout Dixfield.

Last week, the town of Dixfield and cat caretakers Brenda Jarvis, Donna Weston, Noreen Clarke, Valerie Warriner and Caroline Smith filed suit against estate trustees Gertrude Crosby, Bentley Crosby and Charlotte Mesko, all of Winslow. The suit also names Rumford attorney David Austin, who represented Thorpe before she died and drafted her will, and who began representing the Crosbys after Thorpe’s death.

According to the suit, the Crosbys and Austin unfairly enriched themselves by billing excessive fees to the trust and have failed for more than 13 years to carry out Thorpe’s intention to finance the care and feeding of abandoned cats in Dixfield.

The suit also alleges the trustees haven’t adequately invested the trust, which contained $153,744 in September 2005 — the most recent accounting the Sun Journal could find in the Thorpe probate file. According to plaintiffs, they have repeatedly asked for updated financial records over the past decade without success.

Thorpe’s bequest

Thorpe’s last will and testament is just two pages long. In it, she bequeathed certain pieces of antique furniture to some of her friends, including a Nantucket basket and floral parlor mirror to “my friend, Gertrude Crosby,” who was also named as the sole representative of the estate.

Crosby was responsible for paying costs of the estate and ensuring bequests were made, including dispensing $5,000 to the Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children, $2,000 to the King Hiram Lodge and $1,000 in cash to various friends.

According to an accounting of the estate filed with the Oxford County Probate Court in 2003, Crosby paid out $41,497.33 in estate expenses, including final utility bills for Thorpe’s home in Dixfield, property taxes, bank fees, appraisal fees for her home and guns, and $13,417.50 to attorney Austin.

Another $8,000 was spent to satisfy cash bequests to Thorpe’s friends, and the remainder — $147,978.63 (plus whatever life insurance proceeds were later collected) — was bequeathed to create a memorial trust to care for Dixfield’s abandoned and unwanted cats.

Thorpe’s will, signed three years before she died, intentionally omitted any provision for her relatives. The will was specifically designed to leave her assets to needy cats, but it did not specifically say which organization or person was to receive those assets or how and when the money should be disbursed.

And that is the crux of the lawsuit: Who is entitled to how much money and when.

The caretakers

In 1974, sisters Brenda Jarvis and Caroline Smith converted their deceased parents’ mobile home into a cat shelter. At first, they took care of two kittens that were dumped on the front lawn, Jarvis said, but then she rescued two adult females and three kittens.

The sisters maintained heat, lights and a phone at the trailer, and over time made a home for dozens of unwanted cats.

Seventeen cats are now living there, roaming the trailer as they like.

“People get cats,” Jarvis said, “and don’t get them fixed. They move away and leave the cats and kittens. They’re thrown away,” she said, and she feels compelled to care for them.

Jarvis, 75, goes to the trailer every day to feed, groom and visit with the cats, dispensing medicine as needed, spending the better part of each day there. Each Sunday, her family gathers at the trailer for their midday meal to be together and visit with the cats because Jarvis never wants the animals to be left alone too long.

And, no matter the weather, she also goes to a handful of outdoor locations where she maintains insulated shelters. “I warm their food up twice a day and take it to them, and make sure they have water. They’re spoiled rotten, even though they’re strays,” she said.

“I spend darn close to my entire Social Security check,” about $763 a month, to care for the cats, Jarvis said. That’s over $9,000 a year.

Jarvis and her husband have cats in their own home, too, that Brenda has taken in over the years. They also care for a pigeon that they started caring for as a baby. The bird, named Priscilla, is now 4 years old and coos when she hears Jarvis pull into the driveway.

Smith (Jarvis’ sister) keeps 10 cats at her own home, but in recent years has become too ill to regularly help with the other cats.

Warriner, who moved with her 26 cats to Rumford from New Hampshire in 2004, maintains a cat house in Dixfield — which she calls the “Green House” — for 40 cats.

Thorpe had died before Warriner moved to Rumford and she has never met the estate trustees or Austin. She loves cats, though, and doesn’t want to see abandoned cats euthanized after they are picked up by animal control.

Warriner, 56, estimates she spends $800 from her savings each month, and that doesn’t pay all of the bills.

“Right now, I’m going through 40 pounds of litter a day” at the Green House, and while they get donations every once in a while from occasional fundraisers, the volunteers are always strapped for cash.

“I don’t buy anything else,” Warriner said. “I pay for my house and spend the rest of my money on the cats. I spend more time at the Green House than my own house,” often working 14 hours a day to feed, groom and tend to the animals, including running errands for supplies. Jarvis does the laundry and takes the used litter and other trash to the dump.

The women make sure each of the cats has a bed where they’re staying, Warriner said. “They’re spoiled little brats. We wait on them like little kings and queens.”

And, if they’re expecting bad weather, the women stay overnight in the respective cat houses to be sure the animals will be warm and fed if roads become impassable.

“I haven’t gone to visit my family in two years because I can’t leave,” Warriner said. “If I leave here, then Brenda has to do what I do and I just can’t put it on her.”

Weston — who cares for eight disabled cats at her home — pitches in to pay many of the veterinarian bills, which are often discounted by local veterinarians. A week ago, she paid to spay and neuter eight cats, and often pays for shots and other medicine for the animals.

“It’s never-ending,” Jarvis said, “but that’s what we do.”

A couple of years ago, a dear friend of Jarvis’ who supported her work donated an old three-bedroom farmhouse to be used as a central cat house, where cats now living in the trailer and the Green House will be moved to reduce costs and make caring for the lot of them easier. “It’ll be a much better place for them,” Jarvis said.

The house needs a great deal of renovation, including replacing walls and ceilings in each room.

Jarvis said the Thorpe trust has disbursed about $300 a year to care for the cats, and once she received a $2,500 check, but she’s had to ask for the money every time. “Last year, I had to write (the trustees) a letter asking if they had any money, and if they could forward me some,” she said. They sent a check for $250.

If the town’s lawsuit against the estate succeeds, Jarvis said, she hopes some of the money could be used to repair the farmhouse, but most would be used for direct care of the cats.

The lawsuit

According to the 20-count complaint, filed in Oxford County Superior Court by Rumford attorney Seth Carey, Thorpe’s bequest was clearly intended to fund the work of Jarvis and the other volunteer caretakers because they are the only group that has demonstrated longtime care of cats in the Dixfield area, “and who have actually received funds from the Barbara Thorpe Trust.”

And, he argued, once the individual bequests were disbursed, the cats were owed “the lion’s share” of Thorpe’s estate. But, he wrote, her “remarkable and generous gift was never realized, due to the actions and inactions of the defendants.”

The complaint alleges malpractice, breach of duty to administer the trust, financial negligence and power of attorney violations, among other things.

Plaintiffs request that trustees be removed and barred from access to the funds, that defendants pay back any money that they took that was meant for the cats, and that they provide a full and current accounting of assets of the trust.

“It has now been 13 years since Mrs. Thorpe died,” according to the complaint. “The will proceeds were supposed to help hundreds of cats to this point and more ongoing. They have received only a token pittance over many years.”

According to the complaint, the Crosbys directed money that had been meant for the cats to themselves instead. Specifically, when Thorpe got sick in 2001 and moved to a nursing home, Gertrude Crosby raised her $8 hourly fee for housekeeping to $100 an hour, and paid her husband Bentley Crosby $40 per hour to help her.

The Crosbys continued to bill the estate those hourly fees to administer the trust after Thorpe died.

The complaint also alleges that attorney Austin “fought extremely hard against the beneficiary cats,” billed over $13,000 in fees, and worked in concert with the trustees not to pay out funds.

Austin declined to comment on the case, and referred the Sun Journal to the defendants’ attorney, Neal Pratt of Eaton Peabody.

“All four defendants vehemently deny any wrongdoing and we fully expect that the litigation will corroborate that view,” Pratt said Thursday.

Many of the complaints made by the plaintiffs were also made in 2004 when the town of Dixfield and the cat volunteers filed a claim in probate court. During that case, the court ruled Austin’s fees were reasonable, but the trustees’ fees were not and Judge Hanley capped their fees at 10 percent of the total trust.

In 2012, with the probate case still active, Thorpe’s sister-in-law Gloria Thorpe Bangs wrote to the probate court “hoping to see the final management of her estate will comply with her wishes.”

In her letter, Bangs noted, “I am not a cat lover nor have I ever enjoyed cats,” but she knew her brother and sister-in-law had loved cats and had wanted to help abandoned cats in Dixfield. And not, as she wrote, to see their money “fill the pockets of those entrusted with fulfilling her last wishes.”

After years of hearings, and what Hanley described as an “overly litigious” case for the size of the estate, he ordered trustees to close the estate in 2013, having already noted “the town of Dixfield is a beneficiary under the will of Barbara Thorpe.”

During the time the case was in probate court, attorneys from both sides filed complaints against each other with the Board of Overseers of the Bar, with Thomas Carey claiming Austin had a conflict of interest in representing first Thorpe and then her trustees, and Austin claiming Carey violated the code of professional responsibility by going to the district attorney’s office to accuse Austin of misconduct.

According to court records, the board found no violations by either attorney.

A moral responsibility

In 2005, after public discussion about the Thorpe estate and the need to fund care for local cats, the town of Dixfield become an interested — but neutral — party in the probate dispute.

Late last year, though, the Board of Selectmen met with Seth Carey and unanimously authorized him to file a civil suit to assert the town’s claim to the remaining estate.

According to Town Manager Carlo Puiia, selectmen believe they have a moral responsibility to pursue the claim in “the best interest of the town because there are so many stray cats in the area.”

Puiia said the board believed Thorpe’s intention was to provide for the cats, and selectmen “support that mission to place the money in the correct hands.”

Local shelter owners and the town’s animal control officer all agree that Thorpe’s intention was to support Jarvis’s care of the cats.

Animal Control Officer Anne Simmons-Edmunds called Brenda “an awesome lady who does a tremendous amount of good for the cats of Dixfield that she takes in on her own.”

There are no animal shelters in Dixfield, so there is a general presumption in the public’s mind that Thorpe intended her estate to fund Jarvis’ efforts, Simmons-Edmunds said.

“The town of Dixfield is going to be at a loss when Brenda Jarvis is no longer around to take care of the cats she’s taking care of,” Simmons-Edmunds said, and officials really need to address the cats’ future care.

Becky McDonald, who owns River Valley Animal Advocates, a private shelter in Canton, said Jarvis and her sister are the only people she’s ever known to take care of abandoned cats in Dixfield “for many, many, many, many years.”

Animal Advocates, which shelters animals from a number of River Valley towns, is funded through grants and fees, and offers a number of reduced-rate medical services.

According to McDonald, because of the work done at her shelter, at McKennels Animal Adoption in Rumford and through Jarvis and others in Dixfield, the euthanasia rate in the River Valley has dropped dramatically in the recent past because volunteers are trapping cats and neutering them.

She said locals don’t realize the benefit of the work Jarvis and others do to keep municipal costs down. “It’s cheaper to have these cats fixed than having an animal control officer go out and pick them up” for euthanasia, she said.

Marsha McKenna of McKennels in Rumford agreed.

She contracts with Dixfield to take abandoned animals, but all feral cats brought there are euthanized and the town is billed for that cost.

The cheaper option, she suggested, would be for Dixfield to manage the funds from the Thorpe estate and contract with Jarvis to take and care for abandoned cats rather than pay euthanasia bills.

McKenna said she thought it was “about time” for Dixfield to pursue the Thorpe funds, and blamed the confusion over the wording in the will on Austin, saying the will was not written specifically enough to make Thorpe’s wishes clear. When a person hires an attorney to draft a will, she said, “you trust that they word it right and trust your intentions are followed.”

McKenna added, “That woman left the money to the town of Dixfield” and the parties “should be ashamed of themselves” for not honoring her wishes. “Ashamed.”

Although Jarvis and Thorpe were not close friends, they knew each other. Thorpe knew of Jarvis’ caretaking and Jarvis remembers Thorpe’s Siamese cats.

And, Jarvis said, they had a friend in common who once told her about Thorpe’s intention to establish a trust for the cats. “Now Brenda will have some money for the kitties,” Jarvis was told Thorpe said. “She meant (the money to go) to me,” Jarvis said. For the cats.

The defendants are required to respond to the lawsuit filed by Jarvis, her fellow cat caretakers and the town by Feb. 12.

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