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Feud Among Sisters Escalates over Use of Mother's Money

12 Oct 2007

By Tracy Breton

PROVIDENCE - It doesn't look like there will be a settlement anytime soon in the battle between two feuding sisters over the future of their mother, Laurette Borduas Eifrig, a former schoolteacher whose affairs are now being handled by a court-appointed guardian.

Eifrig's lawyer, Richard A. Boren, told Superior Court Judge Alice B. Gibney yesterday that he was "shocked" by an accounting submitted this week by Eifrig's Virginia daughter, Francine Ardito, who formerly had power of attorney for her mother and was co-trustee of her trust. He said the accounting shows that Ardito transferred close to $350,000 from her mother's trust accounts in Virginia to bank accounts in her own name and then used thousands of dollars of that money to pay a Virginia lawyer to sue her mother as part of an attempt to reassert control over her mother's finances.

Ardito, who lives in Virginia, and her older sister, Suzette Gebhard, the former head of the Rhode Island League of Women Voters who resides in Warren, have been involved in a bitter tug of war over where their mother should live and who should have control of her money. In May 2006, Gebhard moved her mother from Reston, Va., to live with her in her home and then refused to let anyone visit her.

Gibney determined that neither sister was fit to be guardian for their mother because of the acrimony between them. She appointed a lawyer, Paula M. Cuculo, to fill that role. Eifrig, who will celebrate her 91st birthday next week, currently resides at Capitol Ridge, an assisted-living facility on Smith Street. She is blind and suffers from dementia. Ardito is currently barred by the court from visiting her.

Over the last year and a half, the legal fight between her two daughters has cost Eifrig almost $200,000 in lawyer and guardian fees and, according to her guardian, much anxiety.

In court yesterday, Boren told Gibney that during the past month, Ardito has dropped the lawsuits she had brought against her mother and Cuculo in Virginia in an attempt to reassert her position of authority over her mother's money and residence.

Cuculo has received more than $250,000 of the money that Ardito took from the trusts and most of the rest of the money has been accounted for, according to representations made in court yesterday. Among the fees that Gibney has approved being paid from Eifrig's trust is the $60,000-plus charged by Rhode Island lawyer Janet Mastronardi, who was hired by Ardito in her unsuccessful bid to become her mother's guardian.

But Boren said yesterday that Ardito - without court authorization - may have used up to $21,000 of her mother's money to sue her mother in Virginia. He told the court he wants to see copies of the checks Ardito has written since her mother's arrival in Rhode Island.
"I just don't trust the numbers," he said of the accounting that Ardito furnished to him this week.

Boren told the court that over the past year and a half, Ardito has repeatedly minimized how much money her mother has.

In the first accounting she offered to the court on Aug. 24 - less than two months ago - he said, Ardito claimed there was $500,733 in her mother's trust. She said in that accounting that her mother forgets about money she's spent and "details."

"She verbally told me what her assets were and I believed it. Much later, when I roughly added up her assets, I realized they were less than she had said. I have never heard the figure $735,000 until now," Ardito wrote - a reference to what Boren claimed Eifrig was claiming she had in savings.

In the most recent accounting, provided to Boren by Ardito through her Virginia lawyer on Monday, Ardito asserted that her mother has $745,085.59 in her trust.

Boren zeroed in on the contradiction in yesterday's hearing - which Ardito chose not to attend. "There's a $245,000 difference" between what she accounted for in August and what she says is there now, he told the judge. It's clear, he said, that "she did not intend to let anyone know of that additional $245,000" and would not have revealed it without his pressing for it.

James Philip Head, Ardito's Virginia lawyer, said yesterday he would have no comment on Boren's remarks. "I can see where he's going with this," he added.

Gibney asked how much time Boren would need to continue his investigation of Eifrig's unaccounted for money. He asked to have three weeks. The judge continued the matter until Nov. 1 - at which time, Boren says, he is going to press his motion that Ardito be held in contempt.

During yesterday's hearing, Boren told the judge that Ardito has offered to repay her mother $5,000 of the money she spent on her Viginia attorney - but that she wants a $1,900 deduction because she thinks her mother should pick up the tab for trips she, her daughter and her mother's sister made to Rhode Island to visit her.

Boren said that he thinks Ardito actually used much more than $5,000 of her mother's money to pay her Virginia attorney - so may owe substantially more than that in restitution, perhaps as much as $21,000 based on the accounting she submitted this week.

Gibney said she would not approve the $1,900 that Ardito was seeking from her mother for the visits to see her. "You don't owe her anything," she told Boren and Cuculo.

Cuculo told the judge that Ardito's actions have been very disturbing to her.

"I think she owes us," she told the judge.

Before adjourning the hearing, Gibney told the lawyers, "I think we all need to think about what Step 2 will be if there is no explanation" from Ardito regarding the gaps in her accounting.

"I'll ask for your input," she said.

Copyright 2007. Used with permission from The Providence Journal.

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