Nearly 50 years ago, Buzz Aldrin made history during the famous Apollo 11 moon landing. Nowadays, he's embroiled in a legal fight with a former business manager and two of his adult children who claim he's incompetent and seek to be appointed as his co-guardians. Meanwhile, Aldrin and his attorneys allege his children and former employee are engaged in elderabuse and squandering his funds.
Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin was the second person to set foot on the moon when he followed Neil Armstrong down the ladder to the lunar surface in the summer of 1969.
These days, however, Aldrin finds himself going toe-to-toe with two of his adult children and a former business manager, dealing with the gravity of alleged elder exploitation.
Aldrin, 88, a retired Air Force colonel who was a member of the Apollo 11 crew and is a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medal, filed a lawsuit in Brevard County, Florida, accusing them of financial malfeasance and making slanderous claims that he suffers from dementia.
In the lawsuit filed June 7, Aldrin accuses two of his children of conspiring with a former business manager to misuse his funds, control his business and personal affairs and attempting to strip him of his independence by requesting they be appointed his co-guardians. In May, the two Aldrin children petitioned a Florida court for guardianship, claiming Buzz Aldrin is in a state of "cognitive decline."
The lawsuits come a year before the 50th anniversary of the famous moon landing that was witnessed on live TV by an estimated 600 million viewers. Five decades later, millions of earthlings are watching a legal drama unfold involving one the space program's most venerated stars. It's a squabble that could jettison the family's reason to celebrate the upcoming milestone.
According to court documents, Aldrin established a revocable trust in October 2016 and appointed son Andrew Aldrin as his successor trustee with power-of-attorney authority over his father's financial affairs. Janice and Andrew Aldrin and recently fired business manager Christina Korp filed a petition in Brevard County that claims Buzz Aldrin "suffers from memory loss, delusions, paranoia and confusion," according to court filings. The petition requests the two Aldrin children be appointed co-guardians of their father.
The son also serves as an executive of business entities created by Buzz Aldrin, including Buzz Aldrin Enterprises Inc., Buzz Aldrin Space Foundation and the Buzz Aldrin Space Institute at the Florida Institute of Technology. Korp also has served as a corporate officer with some of those entities.
Buzz Aldrin's 115-page lawsuit alleges that Andrew Aldrin and Korp "have assumed control and access to plaintiff's personal credit cards, bank accounts, trust money, space memorabilia, space artifacts, social media accounts and all elements of the Buzz Aldrin brand." It accuses them of establishing a "de facto guardianship" over Buzz Aldrin by controlling his "publicity, contacts and clientele for their own self-dealing and enrichment."
Lawsuit filed on behalf of Buzz Aldrin
For years, the lawsuit alleges, Andrew Aldrin and Korp have "slandered" Buzz Aldrin by alleging he has dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Buzz Aldrin disputes the allegations about his mental health. In April, he was evaluated by a psychiatrist who rated him as "superior to normal" on a battery of geriatric tests, according to media reports.
"I also believe that he is perfectly capable of providing for his physical health needs, food, clothing and shelter, and is substantially able to manage his finances and resist fraud and undue influence," UCLA-based Dr. James Spar wrote to one of Buzz Aldrin's lawyers.
On June 18, the former astronaut visited the White House for President Donald Trump's announcement directing the Department of Defense to establish a sixth military branch, the U.S. Space Force. Because of the pending lawsuits, the court appointed a social worker, a nurse and a doctor to assess his mental and physical health, and he was scheduled for three separate examinations on June 26 and 27. An attorney for Buzz Aldrin told reporters that results of the examinations are expected sometime in July.
The allegations go beyond financial improprieties. The son and business manager are accused of forbidding Buzz Aldrin from remarrying and "deliberately have undermined, bullied and defamed" his "personal romantic relationships."
Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been transferred from a Morgan Stanley brokerage account and for years monthly business and personal charges up to $60,000 were made "under the guise" of trustee, power of attorney and employee, the lawsuit alleges.
Before filing the lawsuit, Buzz Aldrin's attorney Robert H. Tourtelot sent Korp a termination letter demanding she stop using Aldrin's financial resources and representing him in any business matters. Meanwhile, Buzz Aldrin revoked the successor trustee and power-of-attorney authorities that he had granted his son. Aldrin's son James is not named in the lawsuit.
An attorney for Andrew and Jan Aldrin, Bernard R. Given II, disputes media characterizations of the legal battle now orbiting the family. Given denies that Andrew Aldrin and Korp misused funds and calls into question Buzz Aldrin's mental fitness.
In a letter written to the Wall Street Journal, Given accuses the newspaper in its coverage of failing to consider "scores of anecdotal reports and observations of individuals in the space industry and colleagues of the foundation expressing serious concern to the family for Col. Aldrin's mental state over the past several years."
"The decline of his mental capacity has been well known and discussed widely among his colleagues for some time," Given writes.
Given also asserts that there has been an "alarming growth" in Buzz Aldrin's "increasingly lavish personal expenses, exceeding an average of $70,000 per month, that led to the transfer of monies from his savings account to pay his bills, and contributed to Andy and Jan Aldrin considering guardianship proceedings for the protection of their father."
Andrew and Janice Aldrin issued a joint statement that says they are "deeply disappointed and saddened by the unjustified lawsuit that has been brought against us individually and against the foundation that we have built together as a family to carry on Dad's legacy for generations to come."
Buzz Aldrin's lawsuit accuses Andrew Aldrin of self-dealing and breaching his fiduciary duties. Janice Aldrin is accused of conspiracy and not acting in her father's interests. Korp faces allegations of fraud, unjust enrichment and exploitation of the elderly.
Statement from Andrew and Janice Aldrin
Korp also issued a personal statement rejecting Buzz Aldrin's allegations. She asserted that "almost a year ago, some people began to exert undue influence on Buzz. These individuals began to actively try to drive a wedge between Buzz and his children, and me, for what I fear is their own benefit."
Korp insists she has been dedicated to her boss' legacy and has "never acted on Buzz's behalf without his full knowledge, support and cooperation." She adds that "something like Buzz's competency is best handled through our justice system."
Christina Korp statement
What's not in dispute is the fact that Buzz Aldrin established an estate plan with a detailed trust to provide for the management of his property and disposition of his assets that appointed his son as successor trustee. These actions should have prevented this litigation. Nonetheless, Aldrin's estate plan, something intended to keep his affairs private, has become fodder for media speculation about litigation involving family members.
You didn't walk on the moon like Aldrin, but you still have an expectation of keeping private family matters out of public view. So, why did his plan fail? Perhaps Aldrin didn't communicate his explicit wishes about his personal finances to his family members clearly enough. Perhaps he should have considered a co-trustee who was not a family member, power of attorney and beneficiary. Maybe he should have considered other planning options, such as the appointment of a "trust protector" – a third-party or institution to monitor his son's actions as successor trustee.
Whatever the circumstance, it's a sure bet the Aldrin saga will remain in the headlines for as long the disagreements remain unresolved.
The National Center on Elder Abuse in 1998 conducted what is considered to be the first national study on the incidence of elder abuse in the United States. The study found that nearly 500,000 people age 60 and older reported abuse or neglect in a domestic setting during 1996. It also determined that only one in five cases is likely reported to authorities. In the years since, the NCEA has determined that reports of elder abuse have substantially increased and exceeded the growth of the elderly population.
The NCEA also found that in domestic settings, "perpetrators of elder abuse are much more likely to be a family member." The center also has identified six categories of elder abuse: physical, sexual, emotional or psychological, neglect, abandonment and financial.
Financial abuse sometimes stems from an elder person's "desire to benefit their heirs or to compensate those who provide them with care, affection or attention," according to an Idaho Law Review article by attorney CL Dessen.
But proving abuse isn't easy. "It can be difficult to discern a transfer of assets made with consent from an abusive transfer," Dessen says.
According to AARP, all states have adopted laws that enable state agencies to investigate reports of elder abuse and provide remedies, and those suspecting abuse are encouraged to report it.
The National Center on Law and Elder Rights cites a 2014 survey of Americans age 50 to 70 that estimates annual losses from financial exploitation of the elderly as more than $36 billion.
The center suggests some steps to take in preventing financial abuse by a power of attorney:
- Have attorneys for senior citizens draft power-of-attorney documents that require annual accountings to a third person (or more).
- Require a second signature for large transactions.
- Put limits those with power-of-attorney authority in changing rights of survivorship and beneficiary designations.
- Restrict power-of-attorney authority to create, amend, revoke or terminate trusts.