PORTLAND (AP) – Maine’s highest court Thursday clarified support claims by Scarborough Downs owner Joseph Ricci’s ex-wife and threw out a probate judge’s order calling for a nearly $500,000 lump sum payment to settle her claims in full.

The Supreme Judicial Court’s 18-page ruling stemmed from a claim by Cheryl Benton against Sharon Terry, Ricci’s widow, personal representative of his estate and trustee of the Joseph Ricci Trust.

The flamboyant Ricci, who made headlines by running for governor, operating a controversial school for troubled teenagers and being at the center of several high-profile lawsuits, died in January 2001; he and Benton were divorced in 1979.

Under the divorce settlement, Benton was entitled to support payments of $40,000 a year. She filed a claim against Terry, who as personal representative had neither disallowed nor paid the claim. Terry sought to reduce the payments, citing the estate’s limited resources and the fact that the payments would no longer be tax deductible after Ricci’s death.

At the trial nearly a year ago, Terry testified that the Ricci estate and the Ricci trust were jointly valued at $14,896,685. But she said the liabilities of the corporations owned by the trust, including the parent company of Scarborough Downs, exceeded assets by more than $5.6 million.

Terry testified that she could pay ongoing monthly support to Benton but could not pay an accelerated lump sum.

The judge ordered Terry to pay Benton $76,666 in overdue payments, plus interest, and set a deadline of Aug. 1, 2003, for Terry to make a $496,962 lump sum payment in full and final settlement of the claim.

In her appeal, Terry challenged the Probate Court’s denial of her request to transfer the claim against the trust to Superior Court. The supreme court agreed with Terry on that point, but stopped short of setting aside the Probate Court’s order related to the Ricci estate.

The law court declined to modify the amount of the monthly support payments but said the Probate Court lacked the discretion to order the lump sum payment to liquidate the claim. The justices also upheld the order that Terry pay $21,748 to cover Benton’s attorney fees.

The ruling clarified that the judgment is directed at the estate rather than the trust. It was not clear, however, whether the supreme court ruling was the final word in the matter or if either side would attempt to renew the legal battle.

Attorney Edward MacColl of Portland, who represented Terry, said he was “reasonably pleased” at the outcome but would not elaborate.

Benton’s lawyer, Dennis O’Donovan of Portland, said he was pleased that the order validated his client’s right to overdue alimony, accrued interest, future alimony and attorney fees.

O’Donovan said he was hopeful that the matter was settled. “The only thing I see that would be an issue would be the future alimony – the payments that come due every month,” he said.

AP-ES-07-03-03 1236EDT

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