What We Can Learn from Buzz Aldrin’s Guardianship Fight

On July 20, 1969, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the second human in history to walk on the moon. These days, at the ripe old age of 88, Buzz is dealing with issues that are much more down to earth: The loss of control that comes through the appointment of a guardian (the Florida version of what we in California call a conservator).

Although we don’t know all the facts about Buzz’s condition, we can still take some lessons from his current ordeal.

Does Buzz Aldrin Need a Guardian?

In May, two of Buzz Aldrin’s children, Andrew and Janice, filed a lawsuit in Florida state court seeking to establish a guardianship over their father’s finances. The lawsuit claimed Buzz suffered from “cognitive decline,” including “loss of memory, confusion, general delusions, paranoia, and unusual behavior.”

The children also alleged that their father was “associating with new acquaintances who appear to be manipulating him with false information to their own benefit.”

Then, in late June, Buzz responded with his own lawsuit, claiming that Andrew and Buzz’s business manager already took over his finances and were using them “for their own self-dealing and enrichment,” and that Janice had breached her fiduciary duty to Buzz.

Both lawsuits are still ongoing, and it’s impossible for those of us on the outside to determine what’s really going on. But Buzz’s recent legal troubles are an excellent opportunity to review a topic I’ve discussed before: Avoiding conservatorship in California.

Conservatorship in California

What Florida calls guardianship, California calls conservatorship. In California, a conservator is someone appointed by a court to manage a person’s financial or health care decisions or both. Those types of decisions correspond to two types of conservators: conservators of the person and conservators of the estate.

A conservator of the person is responsible for the personal care of the conservatee—the person for whom the conservatorship was established. That includes making decisions about where the conservatee lives, what he or she eats, and what health care he or she receives.

A conservator of the estate controls the conservatee’s finances. He or she collects the conservatee’s income, pays the conservatee’s bills, and makes investment and other financial decisions.

So, what’s the problem with conservatorships? Well, first, because a conservator must be appointed by a court, establishing a conservatorship requires hiring a lawyer and filing a lawsuit. Second, the court will want to hear regular reports from the conservator, which will require ongoing legal and accounting fees. Third, with a conservatorship, you don’t get a say who handles your finances or health care decisions. That’s ultimately up to the court.

Protecting Yourself Against Conservatorship

Conservatorship in California is a lot like probate: It is a costly, time-consuming process that can easily be avoided with proper planning. Fortunately, there are alternatives to conservatorship. Here are some popular ones that I often help clients establish:

Advance Health Care Directive

An advance health care directive appoints someone to make medical decisions for you when you become unable to make them for yourself. You choose who gets to wield that power, and you can also limit his or her authority to make certain decisions.

Durable Power of Attorney

A durable power of attorney is similar to an advance health care directive, but it gives authority over your finances rather than your health. Again, you choose who makes those decisions, and you can limit the scope of that person’s authority.

Living Trust

A living, or “revocable,” trust is a typical feature of Californian estate plans. With a living trust, you can specify who should take over as trustee if you become incapacitated. In that event, your chosen trustee will have authority over all the property in your trust, without the need to go to court.

Read more: Make Sure You Have These 4 Key California Estate Planning Documents

The Time to Plan is Now

Buzz Aldrin is an American hero. But even American heroes need flexible estate plans that can stand the test of time. From news reports, it seems that Buzz had developed an estate plan. But the guardianship fight his family is currently embroiled in suggests that that plan may have had some weaknesses.

If you have an estate plan and are unsure of whether it will protect you against conservatorship in California, or if you don’t have an estate plan at all and would like to begin the process of developing one, you should contact an experienced estate planning lawyer today.