Ludlow charities still await $1.5M gift
By Kevin O’Connor
Staff Writer | December 16,2013
Kevin O'Connor Photo
Black River Good Neighbor Services is one of 14 Ludlow organizations awaiting a $1.5 million estate gift.
LUDLOW — It seemed the most angelic news, a happy ending just in time for the holidays: After years of argument, more than a dozen local charities recently received Vermont Supreme Court confirmation that a contested $1.5 million estate gift was legally bequeathed to them.
But the devil, townspeople here know, is in the details.
The state’s highest court this month upheld a Windsor County jury’s decision that the late Ludlow resident Phyllis Agan’s estate contained money for 14 community causes. But that doesn’t mean the organizations will reap the amount specified or receive it anytime soon.
“We were jubilant when the jury came back in our favor, but that was almost two years ago,” says Peter LaBelle, a retired lawyer and president of Black River Good Neighbor Services. “The court system is a long process. Once again, we’re not counting our chickens before the eggs are hatched.”
Three family members who have contested Agan’s final papers — arguing they were amended after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease — still have until the end of the week to file a motion for reconsideration.
In addition, the high court rejected the charities’ request for $500,000 in legal fees and interest on the gift tied up since Agan’s death in 2008. That means the groups will have to figure out how to collectively pay those bills before they can calculate their individual windfalls.
“This is a big math problem,” says Robert Kottkamp, president of the United Church of Ludlow. “The family can spend more money and force us to spend more money. It’s not certain until it’s over.”
The two sides can’t even agree on when it began. Agan, wife of fellow well-known local Bill Agan, was a leader at a time when women were known more for housekeeping than community building.
“She came here at age 19, met this guy as a waitress, and they got married,” Kottkamp says. “She was the little engine that could, and as a couple they were central in this town.”
In her later years, Agan rewrote her final papers seven times — the latest in 2005. Which document chronicles her wishes? The charities argue she knew what she was doing when she bequeathed:
n $200,000 to the Salvation Army.
n $150,000 each to the Black River Academy Museum and United Church.
n $100,000 each to the American Legion Auxiliary, American Red Cross, Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary church building fund, Black River Good Neighbor Services, Black River Valley Senior Center, Gill Odd Fellows Home, Masonic Lodge, Order of the Eastern Star, Rotary Club and the town, the latter to invest in a home economics scholarship for a graduating high school student.
n $50,000 to the Garden Club.
But after Agan’s death, her sister, niece and nephew contested the papers in court. They are represented by a Burlington law firm that didn’t respond to this newspaper’s request for comment.
And so the community causes continue to wait for their promised money. The $100,000 gift for Black River Good Neighbor Services totals more than half its annual $180,000 budget to help people struggling with rising prices and cutbacks in government assistance.
“I’m a little upset about the fact she wanted us to have $100,000 and we’re not going to get close to that,” LaBelle says. “But even if we get half, it’s a lot of money for us. I can’t speak for other organizations, but we’ve said we’re not going to determine what to do with it until we get it. And we still haven’t got it.”
Kottkamp, for his part, said Agan’s papers specify the United Church money for a building fund to maintain a 121-year-old structure that also hosts community events.
“That will help us if the furnace blows up or other things need to be fixed,” he says.
Kottkamp is one of many locals who attended hour after hour of court hearings. The retired educator says he’s investing his time because he believes Agan knew how she wanted to invest her money.
“Phyllis knew what she was doing. And she will get her wish — if something doesn’t happen.”