When Lawrence Thomases died on Dec. 21, 2010, the final act in a life of philanthropy rested in a bank account in the form of $45,000 designated to a local nonprofit animal shelter.
But nearly two years after the death of the 60-year-old Medford man known as Larry to friends and acquaintances, the Northeast Animal Shelter in Salem is still awaiting receipt of the donation, and the unassuming act of generosity has stirred up a controversy.
A judge ruled in July that the shelter should get the money and the company holding it has promised to abide by the court order, but the shelter is still waiting.
Friends describe Thomases — who was born in Connecticut and later lived and traveled extensively in Central and South America — as a private person, and though he kept his gift to the shelter a secret, it does not surprise those who knew him.
He was kind at heart, working for 20 years as a translator and interpreter for a nonprofit agency, Centro Presente, in Cambridge, which advocates for immigrant rights, and friends say he cared for animals, particularly cats.
“I know he loved his cat, and he would cat-sit for other people. He was very gentle,” said Juliet Faithfull, who knew him for over 20 years through a writing class that was based for a time in Medford.
“I can definitely imagine him leaving money to an animal shelter,” said Suzanne Wallen, who knew Thomases for about 12 years through the same class.
Thomases’ donation, and the subsequent legal struggle over it, began with an Individual Retirement Account that listed Northeast Animal Shelter as the beneficiary in the account holder’s online records.
According to James Bolan, the Newton-based attorney appointed as the administrator of Thomases’ estate, the financial institution that held the account, Sentinel Investments, was unable to produce an original paper document signed by Thomases stating that he wanted the money in the account to go to Northeast Animal Shelter, because Sentinel came into ownership of the account through a merger with Citizens Bank.
Court documents show that Bolan asked Sentinel to contact the keeper of records at Citizens to provide the written designation. Sentinel responded that Thomases “would have received confirmation when the account was established with the designated beneficiary information,” and that there was no record of Thomases disputing the designation.
Northeast Animal Shelter was unaware of the generous gift until it was contacted by Bolan. According to Donald Shapiro, the shelter’s volunteer treasurer, it also had no paperwork indicating it to be the beneficiary.
Bolan went to Middlesex Probate and Family Court for instruction on whether the money should go to the shelter or the estate. Bolan says he has never seen a case where a computer record is sufficient to award a deceased person’s money to a party or institution without signed documentation. Thomases did not leave a will.
“I did not know what to do,” Bolan said in a brief phone interview. “My job as the fiduciary to the estate was to ask the court for instruction, because it’s not clear.”
Judge Edward F. Donnelly Jr. ruled in July that Sentinel must pay the money in the IRA to Northeast Animal Shelter.
The judge’s decision came after a series of legal moves in which Amy Naughton, an estate attorney working pro bono for the shelter, filed suit seeking to determine if money from other accounts should also go to the shelter. The judge decided the shelter had no claim on the other accounts.
The shelter hired a litigation attorney in the case, running up about $16,000 in legal fees.
Shapiro said that the shelter has not seen the money yet because Sentinel wants shelter officials to sign a release protecting the firm against future actions, and the shelter has refused to do so.
“Regulations prevent us from sharing information about our shareholder’s accounts without their consent,’’ Sentinel in-house counsel Ian McKenny said in an e-mail. “However, we are in receipt of the Court’s order. Sentinel intends on complying with it, and we plan on paying every penny to the appropriate party.”
Shapiro blames Bolan for initiating the legal dispute and accuses him of trying to take the IRA money for the estate because he thought he could outmuscle the shelter in court, saying in an e-mail: “I think he was trying to intimidate the shelter and our attorney.”
Bolan responded: “I’m thoroughly astonished that the shelter would even infer that I would try to take money from them.” He said he is happy that the shelter is receiving the $45,000.
Meanwhile, shrouded by the litigation and finger-pointing is the question that no one who knew Thomases seems to be able to answer: Why did a man with no known connections to the North Shore leave such a generous sum of money to this particular shelter?
“I think he felt very connected to animals,” Wallen said. “What I would wonder is why the North Shore animal clinic, because to my knowledge he didn’t have much of a connection to the North Shore.”
“He was a very quiet, private person, too,” said Ellen Donoghue, who knew Thomases for more than 15 years. “So it might not be something he told a lot of people he did.”
Thomases’ only known living relatives are a brother and niece in Italy.
It is possible that Thomases adopted a cat from the shelter at one point — friends say he only ever had one cat at a time, but several throughout his life — but Shapiro does not have any record of him adopting a pet from Northeast.
At this point, his reasoning for leaving the money to the shelter is irrelevant. Gifts such as his are what keep the shelter going, said Shapiro.
“Quite often we receive bequests, but usually not as large as this one,” he said. “Any time you’re notified that you’re going to get a gift like that, you’re excited.”
Shapiro said in an e-mail that the money will go toward the shelter’s spay/neuter program.
Friends say that aside from losing a dear friend, the saddest part of the story is that Thomases’ wish is not being honored promptly.
“I would say he would’ve been really disappointed,” Donoghue said. “Hurt, and frustrated.”