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A cat lover tried to leave a fortune to her town's strays. It almost didn't work out

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

About 20 years ago, a woman in rural Maine left behind a small fortune - $200,000 - to the stray cats of her hometown, and that is when all the trouble started. Jeff Guo from our Planet Money podcast tried to track down what happened to all that cat money.

JEFF GUO, BYLINE: Dixfield, Maine, is a small town with one gas station, one diner and lots of cat ladies. I visited one of them on a chilly day in February.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CREAKING)

GUO: Hi.

BRENDA JARVIS: Welcome to the Arctic Circle. Come on in.

(LAUGHTER)

GUO: Brenda Jarvis has been looking after the town's strays for more than 40 years. She's, like, the chief cat lady around here.

JARVIS: Come on, babies. It's suppertime.

GUO: And Brenda was really close with a woman in town named Barbara Thorpe. Neither of them had children, and they both loved cats.

JARVIS: If you don't have children, you have something missing in your life, so you need something to fill it in. So Barb had her kitties, you know? Yep.

GUO: When Barbara passed away in 2002, in her will, she put almost all her money into a charitable trust. This is a special legal arrangement where you set aside some money, and that money has to be spent according to your wishes, even long after you die. It's basically a form of economic immortality. And Barbara wanted her fortune to benefit the cats of Dixfield, but it didn't quite work out that way. For many years, her money just sat there, and the people in charge of her trust - they weren't really spending it...

JARVIS: And they knew that what they were doing, in my opinion, was wrong.

GUO: ...Which is why, eventually, Brenda and four other cat ladies in town joined forces to sue - to liberate the money on behalf of the cats of Dixfield.

JARVIS: We're going to fight it. We're going to fight it. Well, we did fight it for years until it stressed me out so much that I just gave up. That's all.

GUO: The cat ladies didn't win their lawsuit, but they did get the attention of someone very important.

CHRISTINA MOYLAN: My name is Christina Moylan. I'm an assistant attorney general.

GUO: Christina works for the attorney general of Maine, and one of the weirder parts of her job is to basically speak for the dead - to ensure that the instructions of people like Barbara Thorpe are carried out.

You never thought about, like, oh, maybe we'll just, like, light some candles, like...

MOYLAN: (Laughter).

GUO: ...Get into a mood and just see what the ghost of Barbara, if she appears - what she might say?

MOYLAN: Well, I'm not sure the taxpayers who fund state government, and ultimately my salary, would be too in favor of that, to be honest.

GUO: Christina says charitable trusts are tricky because we have to follow the instructions of the dead forever - even if the world changes - even if the instructions are kind of vague, so...

MOYLAN: You have to balance what the philanthropists - what the grantors want to do with their money with what's realistic over time.

GUO: It took a few years, but Christina finally figured out a way to honor Barbara's wishes. In 2019, she found this animal shelter that agreed to manage the money. Maybe this wasn't exactly what Barbara wanted, but the shelter is now taking in stray cats from Dixfield.

Are these the Dixfield cats?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We only have three in here. So Felicia came from Dixfield.

GUO: Hey, Felicia. How does it feel to be so blessed?

(SOUNDBITE OF CATS MEOWING)

GUO: So rich? You're a rich little cat, aren't you?

(SOUNDBITE OF CAT MEOWING)

GUO: I think that was a yes.

Jeff Guo, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Guo
Jeff Guo (he/him) is a co-host and reporter for Planet Money, NPR's award-winning podcast that finds creative, entertaining ways to make sense of the complicated forces that move our economy. He joined the team in 2022.