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Daughters' Feud to Cost Mother $186,000 in Fees

15 Aug 2007

By Tracy Breton

PROVIDENCE - A 90-year-old retired schoolteacher who suffers from dementia will have to use almost half of the $423,000 nest-egg she accumulated for retirement to pay lawyers and a court-appointed guardian to end a fight between her two grown daughters who couldn't agree on where she should live.

In a decision filed yesterday, Superior Court Judge Alice B. Gibney paved the way for a settlement of lawsuits in Rhode Island and Virginia over who should be in charge of caring for Laurette Borduas Eifrig and manage her finances. It will leave North Providence lawyer Paula M. Cuculo in charge of those things - not either of Eifrig's daughters, Francine Ardito or Suzette Gebhard. And Eifrig will get her wish: to remain living at Capitol Ridge, an assisted living facility on Smith Street.

But the settlement comes at a huge price for Eifrig, who is now blind as well as memory-impaired: almost $186,000 in lawyer and guardian fees, including all but $5,803 of the $65,982 legal bills that her younger daughter racked up in her unsuccessful fight to become her mother's guardian and move her back to Virginia.

What remains of Eifrig's savings will be eaten up in about four years. Then, if she is still alive, she will have to move to a much less expensive facility - one she can afford on the $1,400-a-month she receives in Social Security and pension, or a taxpayer-subsidized home.

Eifrig doesn't agree with any of this. In 1995, before she started suffering from dementia, she had a Virginia lawyer draw up a will, power of attorney and trust agreement to delineate how she wanted things handled if she were to become incompetent and how her assets should be divided when she died.

Cuculo said Eifrig doesn't want to pay any of these new lawyers for anything "because she never asked for any of this."

It is because Eifrig's two daughters can't get along that the court was brought in to settle their dispute - and now must approve fee petitions from a raft of lawyers. The battle was mounted by Ardito after her sister moved their mother to Rhode Island to live with her.

"This has been a troubling case from the outset," Gibney said yesterday. "As the court has previously observed, the mutual acrimony between Suzette and Francine is palpable and, at times, their behavior is disturbing and not in their mother's best interest. Neither sister is without blame."

The tug-of-war between the sisters began in May 2006 when Ardito, who for 13 years had been her mother's primary caregiver in Reston, decided to enroll her in a two-day-a-week adult day care. Eifrig balked. Gebhard - without notice to her sister - moved Eifrig out of her apartment to her house in Warren. She secreted Eifrig for many months, refusing to let anyone visit. Ardito filed a missing person's report, then hired a Rhode Island lawyer to help get her mother back. Gebhard was arrested for obstruction of justice, a charge she was acquitted of at trial. But in January, the police had to break down Gebhard's door to get access to Eifrig, who after a brief hospitalization was moved by Cuculo to Capitol Ridge.
Gibney said that "it is undisputed that Francine [Ardito] came to Rhode Island to protect her mother and her mother's trust." But recently, after she lost her bid to become her mother's permanent guardian and move her back to Virginia, Ardito "ceased acting in her mother's best interests and began a course of conduct to enhance her own interests," the judge said.

This is what Eifrig will have to pay as a result of Gibney's decision: $60,178.74 to Ardito's Rhode Island lawyer, Janet Mastronardi; $60,059 to her own lawyer, Richard Boren; $28,678 to Cuculo; and $7,511 to Mark Sjoberg, who was appointed by the probate court to represent Eifrig when Ardito petitioned to have her placed under guardianship.

The settlement, according to Boren, will also mean that Eifrig will have to pay Virginia lawyers $29,542 for work they did in Virginia after Ardito tried to remove her mother as trustee of her own trust, undo orders issued by Gibney and block Cuculo from getting money for her mother's care.

Ardito will have to pay about $50,000 in legal fees herself, most of it to her Virginia counsel; Gebhard, $10,000.

Ardito's Virginia lawyer said last night that his client wants to get her visitation privileges restored by Gibney so she can visit her mother once a month in Providence - but that she wants the judge to enter an order to ensure that her mother will pick up the tab for her airfare and hotel.

Copyright 2007. Used with permission from The Providence Journal.

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