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Judge Limits Daughter's Access to Ailing Mother

12 June 2007

By Tracy Breton

PROVIDENCE - A Superior Court judge is now prohibiting Laurette Borduas Eifrig's Virginia daughter and only grandchild from having unsupervised contact with 90-year-old Eifrig, who is in an assisted-living facility on Smith Street.

The new restrictions on family visits isolate Eifrig, a former schoolteacher who is blind and suffers from dementia, from all immediate family members and has left her with no visitors except two lawyers, one of whom is her guardian.

Over Easter weekend, Judge Alice B. Gibney issued an order blocking Eifrig's Rhode Island daughter, Suzette Gebhard, the former head of the Rhode Island League of Women Voters, from having any contact with her mother, calling her a "kidnapping risk."

Now the judge is blocking Eifrig's younger daughter, Francine Ardito, of Reston, Va., and Ardito's daughter, Alicea Ardito, from visiting or calling Eifrig - unless Eifrig's court-appointed guardian, lawyer Paula M. Cuculo, is present.

The new restrictions were put in place in recent days after Francine Ardito tried to withdraw virtually all of her mother's money from bank and brokerage accounts in Virginia. The action by Ardito came as she awaits a decision from Gibney on her petition to wrest guardianship of her mother away from Cuculo.

Ardito did not return a call seeking comment. But Alicea Ardito, saying her mother had authorized her to speak, said her mother is trying to tie up all of Eifrig's money so that "Rhode Island can't touch it. We're hoping that once there isn't enough money in Rhode Island to pay for my grandma's living situation," Capitol Ridge will evict her and "they'll just send her back here so she can live closer to us."

Eifrig, she said, has told Ardito's mother and father that she is lonely in Rhode Island and wants to see them more often.

For 13 years, Eifrig lived in Virginia, near the Arditos. But in May 2006, Gebhard, without telling anyone else in the family, moved her mother to her home in Warren and secreted her there, refusing to let her sister or Cuculo visit. Gebhard was charged with obstruction of justice - but later acquitted - after the police had to knock down her door to gain access to Eifrig.

Since February, Eifrig has been living at Capitol Ridge. In a hearing held at the assisting-living facility last month, she told Gibney that she is happy where she is and doesn't want either daughter in control of her finances.

Francine Ardito was given power of attorney by her mother and made co-trustee of her mother's trust in 2004 - before Eifrig was diagnosed with dementia. Based on those legal documents, Ardito - and her lawyers in Rhode Island and Virginia - assert that she has authority under Virginia law to make financial transactions for her mother, despite an order entered by Gibney last August freezing all of Eifrig's assets until the guardianship issue is resolved. It was Ardito who had asked Gibney to freeze all of the accounts based on her belief that her sister, who had custody of her mother, would fritter away all of Eifrig's money.

According to court papers, Ardito set in motion her plan to take control of her mother's trust funds late last month. She told Resource Bank, one of the institutions that held her mother's savings, that she wanted to close down an account there so she could buy a CD that paid higher interest.

But Cuculo, in an interview last week, termed that explanation "a sham."

"I think this is about greed and control and not about the mother's best interest," Cuculo said. "Francine had 12 years to work her influence on her mother, which is to me why … she is being so protective" of this trust in Virginia. "She's going to get the bulk of it," she argued at a May 30 hearing.

Under the current trust - which Cuculo says she may now try to revoke - Francine Ardito gets $200,000 more than her sister when her mother dies. Eifrig's original trust, established in 1995, treated both daughters equally.

Eifrig currently has $400,000 in her trust but based on the sisters' legal sparring, much of that money may end up going to lawyers. Rhode Island lawyers representing Eifrig's interests have billed her $52,006 to date and Ardito is asking Gibney to approve her request that her mother reimburse her for the $65,982 in legal fees she has amassed in Rhode Island trying to become her guardian and get her back to Virginia.

Although Cuculo says "I'll object to paying that 'til hell freezes over," Eifrig is now faced with having to pay tens of thousands of dollars in additional fees for Virginia counsel, because Cuculo and Eifrig's Rhode Island lawyer, Richard A. Boren, now have to go to Virginia to battle Ardito over the trust funds.

The banks that hold Eifrig's money have told Eifrig's lawyers that they fear being sued in the tug of war over Eifrig's money. Ardito has already threatened to sue one of the banks for its failure to release her mother's money to her. To avoid lawsuits, the banks are depositing all of Eifrig's trust funds in a Virginia court registry where they will be frozen until a judge there decides who has the right to control it.

Boren and Cuculo say they are concerned that the freezing of the funds in Virginia will leave Eifrig unable to pay the cost to remain at Capitol Ridge, where she wants to live. It is costing her $175 a day to stay there and the only money Eifrig gets outside of her trust is $1,400 a month in Social Security and pension.

Cuculo said she thinks Ardito is trying to do an "end run" around the Rhode Island court system because she fears Gibney will not appoint her guardian. She "doesn't want to accept the fact that her mother doesn't want to go back to Virginia," she said.

Boren says he is "very upset" by Ardito's actions and has asked Gibney to hold her in contempt. Gibney says she wants to hear from Ardito.

"I'm curious as to her thought processes in going down this road, when she hopefully was quite cognizant of what this court has done and what this court has expected," Gibney said.

"You know what stands out?" she told Janet Mastronardi, Ardito's Rhode Island lawyer. "The last time we all met on the record, which was at Capitol Ridge, we heard testimony, and exhaustive testimony, from Dr. [Andrew] Rosenzweig, the psychiatrist, and we heard testimony from Laurette. … It could be interpreted that your client was disappointed with the comments made by the physician and with, in fact, the comments made by her mother" who was clear about wanting to stay in Rhode Island. "Now, all of a sudden, we have your client heading for the money, just as we had Suzette heading for the money 10 months ago."

"Suzette stole her mother out of Virginia," Mastronardi said, but there's no evidence that Ardito has ever done anything wrong with her mother's money. She said Francine Ardito had approached the Virginia banks about moving the money because she'd been instructed by her lawyer in Virginia that "she has every right to do anything with the trust that she deems in her discretion in the best interest of her mother. She can take the money and put it into a higher yield CD without anyone's permission. She is still the trustee."

Although Mastronardi is arguing that Rhode Island courts have no jurisdiction over money held in a Virginia trust, Boren vehemently disagrees. Gibney told Mastronardi that her order prevents Ardito "from touching anything anywhere … As far as I'm concerned, the funds are frozen."

Copyright 2007. Used with permission from The Providence Journal.

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