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Sibling Battle Back in Court

17 June 2007

By Tracy Breton

PROVIDENCE - A lawyer for Laurette Borduas Eifrig is asking the Superior Court to unfreeze some of the 90-year-old woman's trust money so she can pay a Virginia lawyer, who charges $250 per hour, to fight her younger daughter's attempt to tie up her money in that state.

Providence lawyer Richard A. Boren is also asking Judge Alice B. Gibney to order the daughter, Francine Ardito, to reimburse her mother, who is blind and suffers from dementia, for all of the legal fees she incurs in Virginia.

Gibney will hear the motions tomorrow morning, as well as a motion filed by Boren to remove Ardito as co-trustee of her mother's trust. Boren asserts that Ardito should be held in contempt and found to have breached her fiduciary duty to her elderly mother in light of the action she has taken in recent weeks to force her mother out of her assisted-living residence in Providence so she can move her back to Virginia.

Eifrig, a retired schoolteacher, has been living since February in assisted living at Capitol Ridge on Smith Street. She testified last month that she wants to remain there for the rest of her life. However, because of a bitter legal feud between her two daughters over her future and finances, she is not getting visits from either daughter and is now isolated from all family members.

Ardito is trying to wrest guardianship of her mother away from Paula M. Cuculo, a North Providence lawyer who was appointed by Gibney as temporary guardian last summer, after Eifrig's older daughter, Suzette Gebhard, of Warren, suddenly moved her mother from Virginia to Rhode Island to live with her - without consulting her sister. Gebhard secreted her mother in her house for many months, without letting Ardito or Cuculo visit. Finally, in January, the police broke down Gebhard's door to gain access to Eifrig, who was brought to a hospital, diagnosed with dementia and then moved to Capitol Ridge.

Ardito has been trying for more than a year now to get court approval to move her mother back to Virginia, where she had resided for 13 years before Gebhard moved her here. But Eifrig told Gibney last month that she prefers Rhode Island now and doesn't want either of her daughters in control of her finances.

A decision on who should be Eifrig's permanent guardian is expected soon from Gibney. Whoever is appointed will have control over where Eifrig will live as well as her money.

Ardito's lawyer, Janet A. Mastronardi, is objecting to tomorrow's hearing. In court papers, she claims that the Rhode Island courts have no authority to take any action concerning the trust that Eifrig established in Virginia long before she was diagnosed with dementia. Therefore, she argues, Gibney may not remove Ardito as her mother's trustee nor unfreeze any of Eifrig's trust money to pay Virginia counsel.

Mastronardi says that Virginia and U.S. Supreme Court case law support her position. Since Eifrig is incapacitated, only Ardito - who in 2004 became co-trustee of her mother's trust and has power of attorney for her - can decide what to do with her mother's Virginia trust money, Mastronardi asserts.

In her court filing, Mastronardi also argues that the motions Boren has brought constitute "further waste" of Laurette Eifrig's assets. In an interview, she said she feared that virtually all of the $400,000 Eifrig has saved over her life will end up going to lawyers and not for Eifrig's care.

In addition to fees charged by Boren and Cuculo, and now potentially Virginia counsel, Eifrig is also being asked to shoulder all of her younger daughter's legal bills. In the papers she filed late last week, Mastronardi is asking Gibney to order Eifrig to pay the cost of her services to Ardito to defend against the motions being heard tomorrow, as well as the $65,982.08 she has billed Ardito for 309 hours of work on the case over the last 11 months.

As of April, Boren's services have cost Eifrig almost $25,000 and Cuculo's services, almost $20,000. They are now seeking approval from Gibney to retain a Virginia lawyer for Eifrig because they fear that recent actions taken by Ardito in that state will tie up Eifrig's money and leave them unable to pay for her assisted living here. It costs Eifrig $175 a day to live at Capitol Ridge.

Cuculo says she will object to Mastronardi's request that her fees be paid by Eifrig.

Copyright 2007. Used with permission from The Providence Journal.

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