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Daughter Seeks Settlement in Guardian Case

8 Aug 2007

By Tracy Breton

PROVIDENCE - Francine Ardito, the Virginia daughter of Laurette Borduas Eifrig, decided to go on a white-water rafting vacation rather than show up for a contempt hearing yesterday in Providence.

But in the wake of her 90-year-old mother's decision to change her trust and revoke her daughter's power of attorney, Ardito has decided that she wants to settle the lawsuits she filed in Rhode Island and Virginia in an effort to move her mother back to Reston.

Under the proposed settlement, Ardito is willing to give up control of her mother's future and let a court-appointed guardian make key decisions for her mother, who is blind and now suffers from dementia. She's also willing to let her mother remain at the Providence assisted-living facility where she has resided since early February, and not to contest changes her mother made last month to her trust. This would give her less money - if any remains - upon her mother's death.

But if Superior Court Judge Alice B. Gibney approves the "global settlement" that is being proposed, more than $170,000 of Eifrig's savings would go to pay for lawyers' and guardians' fees, leaving her with just $253,000 to pay for her $4,900-a-month residence at Capitol Ridge on Smith Street.

As part of her proposal, Ardito is demanding that her mother pay the $65,000 she has racked up in legal fees in Rhode Island battling her elder sister, Suzette Gebhard, over where Eifrig will live. She is also insisting that the contempt proceedings against her - which potentially could land her in prison - be dropped.

Eifrig's Rhode Island lawyer, Richard Boren, told Gibney that with great reluctance, he is asking that she approve the settlement. Otherwise, he said, the fight between the two warring sisters will eat up Eifrig's entire savings and the legal battle "will go on and on and on." If it continues, he said, Eifrig will be unable to afford to stay in the place she now considers home.

But Eifrig's guardian, Paula M. Cuculo, and Gebhard's lawyer are objecting. Eifrig currently faces having to pay $110,000 to her own lawyers and Cuculo and they say she shouldn't have to shoulder Ardito's fees as well. They told Gibney that Ardito should be forced to pay most of the $65,000 she owes her Rhode Island lawyer because, they assert, the daughter's actions were motivated partially by greed and were not entirely in her mother's best interests.

Gibney reserved decision on the settlement proposal but said she would issue a decision quickly because of the pending lawsuit Ardito has filed against her mother and Cuculo in Fairfax County, Va. Lawyers hired to represent Eifrig in Virginia are under a tight deadline to respond to legal matters there.

Gibney had scheduled yesterday's hearing at Boren's request. He wanted Ardito held in contempt for the actions she has taken in recent weeks in Virginia to tie up her mother's trust funds. This was hindering Eifrig's guardian from paying Eifrig's bills at Capitol Ridge.
But Ardito didn't show up (her Virginia lawyer said yesterday she was rafting in Utah and had also visited Las Vegas and couldn't be reached). In an unexpected turn of events, the hearing instead centered on the proposed settlement agreement - with some surprise revelations by Cuculo.

Cuculo said that she had believed for a long time that Gebhard had been motivated by her own self interest when she suddenly moved her mother - who has more than $400,000 in savings - to live with her in Rhode Island. But now, she says, after spending considerable time talking with her ward, she is convinced that it was Eifrig's idea, not Gebhard's, to have her come to live here. In May 2006, she said, Eifrig, "begged" her older daughter to bring her here to live with her because "she wanted to be rid of Francine" and the control she was trying to exert over her life.

At the time, Ardito, who had been her mother's primary caregiver, was planning to enroll Eifrig in a two-day-a-week daycare in Reston. But Eifrig didn't want any part of that, Cuculo said. And now, she says, "she doesn't want to go back to Virginia" or to have Ardito have control over her money.

In an amendment to her trust that she executed on July 24 at Capitol Ridge, Eifrig says that if she is unable to make her own decisions, she wants Cuculo - not either of her daughters - to make them for her. And if any money remains in her estate at the time of her death, the new trust directs that it be divided equally among her two daughters and her only grandchild, Alicea Ardito. Under her now-revoked trust, Francine Ardito stood to inherit $200,000 more than anyone else in the family. But Cuculo told Gibney that Eifrig has repeatedly said that it was never her intention to have one daughter receive more than the other.

Lawyer Mark Sjoberg, who was appointed by the probate court to represent Eifrig's interests when Ardito petitioned to place her under guardianship, told Gibney yesterday that the actions the judge has taken to protect Eifrig are unprecedented, but may also have saved her life. Cuculo reported that Eifrig is content at Capitol Ridge and has no desire to move.

In deciding whether to approve the proposed settlement, Gibney will have to weigh several factors. Among them: How much money did Ardito spend on lawyers to protect her mother? Was any of it spent merely to protect her own inheritance?

Joseph A. Kelly, a lawyer now representing Ardito's former Rhode Island lawyer, argued if it hadn't been for Gebhard, Ardito would never have had to come to Rhode Island and spend all this money on legal fees to try to get her mother back.

"The precipitating cause of the trauma that's been visited upon this family has been Suzette. Yet Suzette walks her merry way" and Ardito is faced with potentially having to pay about $110,000 because she wanted her mother back, Kelly argued. In addition to the $65,000 she has incurred in lawyers' fees in Rhode Island, Ardito faces having to pay at least $44,000 in fees for her Virginia lawyer, he said.

Gebhard, meanwhile, has incurred about $10,000 in lawyers' fees herself. That includes what her attorney charged for representing her when she was arrested for obstruction of justice for secreting her mother inside her house. She was later acquitted.

Copyright 2007. Used with permission from The Providence Journal.

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