More Links in Health Programs

Judge: Neither Daughter is Fit to be Guardian

23 June 2007

By Tracy Breton

PROVIDENCE - Superior Court Judge Alice B. Gibney decided yesterday that neither of Laurette Borduas Eifrig's grown daughters is suitable to be her guardian, saying there is too much animosity between them to put either in charge of their mother's care and finances.

In a 33-page decision issued shortly before the courthouse closed for the weekend, Gibney ordered that North Providence lawyer Paula M. Cuculo remain as guardian of Eifrig, a 90-year-old retired schoolteacher who is blind and suffers from dementia. Only Cuculo has the right to access any of Eifrig's trust funds, the judge decreed. While she said Cuculo should "consider Mrs. Eifrig's wishes" regarding her finances, health care and place of residence, "ultimately … Ms. Cuculo will be responsible for making all final decisions."

Until further order of the court, Eifrig will remain a resident of Capitol Ridge, an assisted-living facility on Smith Street, where she has lived since early February. "The court," wrote Gibney, "will not disrupt the now comfortable rhythm of her life" to have her moved closer to either of her warring daughters.

Gibney's decision culminates a more than yearlong tug of war between Eifrig's two daughters, Suzette Gebhard, of Warren, and Francine Ardito, of Reston, Va., over what is in the best interest of their mother and who should have control of her money. The bitter feud between the sisters led to Gebhard being criminally charged, though she was later acquitted. Gibney has scheduled a hearing for next Tuesday to decide whether Ardito should be held in contempt.

Ardito, 54, a former nurse at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, is currently barred by the court from visiting her mother. Gebhard, 60, a onetime congressional candidate who formerly served as head of the Rhode Island League of Women Voters, just got supervised visitation back this week.

Cuculo was appointed Eifrig's temporary guardian by Gibney last summer after Gebhard moved her mother to Rhode Island from Virginia, where she had resided for 13 years near Ardito and her family. Ardito filed suit in Superior Court and asked that a guardian be appointed for her mother because her older sister refused for months to allow her - and later Cuculo - to visit or send her back to Virginia.

In late January, the Warren police had to knock down the door to Gebhard's house to remove Eifrig, who was briefly hospitalized and then moved by Cuculo to Capitol Ridge. Eifrig's psychiatrist has said she suffers from "moderate dementia" and needs a substitute decision-maker but still wants to be consulted about her affairs.

Gibney conducted a special hearing at Capitol Ridge last month. In the presence of her two daughters, Eifrig testified that she wants to continue living where she is. "Most of all, I think I like to live in Rhode Island; that's my favorite place of living," she told the judge. "It seems that whatever I want to do in Rhode Island is easier for me to do. There's always someone, something … to help me do what I want to do."

In her decision, Gibney said that Capitol Ridge "provides a safe, comfortable and nurturing environment. There is ample evidence to indicate that Mrs. Eifrig has happily adjusted to living there, that she is, indeed, thriving there, and that she is content with the level of independence that it provides her," she said.

The decision by Gibney is a big blow to Ardito, who has power of attorney for her mother and is co-trustee of her mother's Virginia trust. She wanted to replace Cuculo as guardian for her mother, or to have her daughter, Alicea Ardito, appointed instead. In recent weeks - since her mother announced that she wanted to continue living in Providence and not move back to Virginia - Ardito has mounted a new legal battle in her home state to wrest control of her mother's money away from Cuculo so she can move her mother out of her current residence and bring her back to an assisted-living facility in Virginia.

As a result of Ardito's actions in Virginia, Eifrig's lawyer in Rhode Island, Richard Boren, has asked Gibney to find her in contempt and to remove her as co-trustee of her mother's trust. Gibney issued an order last August freezing Eifrig's trust money, except for whatever Cuculo needed to pay her bills in Rhode Island, but now Ardito has instructed banks in Virginia not to release any more of her mother's money to Cuculo and that only she has authority to withdraw any of the money.

In her decision, Gibney said that although Eifrig's physical and mental condition warrants a guardian to be appointed for health-care, residential and financial decisions, Eifrig remains "a very intelligent, sharp and well-spoken woman," someone who should be allowed "to participate as fully as possible in all decisions that affect her."

Usually, a family member is appointed guardian if one is willing to assume that role, but Gibney said that "although Mrs. Eifrig loves both of her daughters equally, the court does not believe that either of them would be a suitable or appropriate guardian … nor would her granddaughter or former son-in-law." As Mrs. Eifrig's psychiatrist, Dr. Andrew Rosenzweig, observed, "the animosity between the two sisters causes Mrs. Eifrig stress and discomfort. And it is Mrs. Eifrig's safety, comfort and well-being that are the paramount concerns of the court."

Gibney noted that the level of acrimony between Ardito and Gebhard is so great that it was Rosenzweig's recommendation "that Francine and Suzette should be allowed only supervised visitation with their mother." His opinion on this issue, she said, "further bolsters this court's conclusion that they are unsuitable to care for Mrs. Eifrig's support, needs and desires or make decisions on her behalf. Indeed, given the animosity that exists between and among the various members of this family, the court concludes that not one family member would be an appropriate guardian of the person and/or the estate of Mrs. Eifrig. This is particularly true with respect to Alicea," said Gibney, "who shares her mother's opinions as to the circumstances of this dispute, and whose negative regard for [her aunt] Suzette was palpable" when she appeared in court.

Gibney said that Cuculo seems the person best suited to look out for Eifrig's best interests. Cuculo, she said, had performed "commendable and yeoman's work" since her appointment as interim guardian, and there exists "an obvious bond" that has developed between Eifrig and Cuculo in the past several months. When the judge went last month to Capitol Ridge to get testimony from Eifrig, she said, she noted exchanges between Cuculo and Eifrig that "were heartfelt, humorous and affectionate and Mrs. Eifrig was clearly comfortable conversing with Ms. Cuculo, and not shy about expressing her opinions.

"Their relationship seemed mutually respectful," said Gibney.

If Ardito gets visitation back, Cuculo may use Eifrig's money to pay "reasonable expenses" for one visit a month from her and her daughter, "if there are sufficient resources available," said Gibney. But she said she was prohibiting both daughters from having any discussion with their mother about the "ill will" that exists between them or "any potential inheritance matters." If they violate this order, she said, all visits will be suspended.

"The animosity between the two sisters causes Mrs. Eifrig stress and discomfort. And it is
Mrs. Eifrig's safety, comfort and well-being that are the paramount concerns of the court."
Dr. Andrew Rosenzweig, Psychiatrist.

Copyright 2007. Used with permission from The Providence Journal.

Donate Now

Sign Up For Email

Please sign up below for important news about the work of The Carter Center and special event invitations.

Please leave this field empty
Now, we invite you to Get Involved
Back To Top