On November 24, 1969, Apollo 12 returned to Earth after completing a successful journey to the moon. Aboard was astronaut Alan Bean, who had just become the fourth man to walk on the lunar surface. He carried home from the mission a small space hammer that he had used to smash rocks on the moon.
Half a century later that space hammer took center stage in a family dispute that played out in a probate court in Harris County, Texas.
Given the current value placed on space artifacts, it might seem unusual that an astronaut would have casually taken one home. The reality is that was commonly done. Space artifacts were initially considered worthless by NASA. Astronauts were free to carry home their personal logs, checklists, flight manuals, test articles and disposable flight hardware; anything, in fact, that was not a moon rock or lunar material. The astronauts, being a bit more forward-thinking than the NASA folks, did so in droves.
Forty years passed before NASA realized that those space artifacts had value. It was only then that NASA first asked, then demanded, that the astronauts give them the artifacts. The astronauts refused. Unable to wrest the memorabilia from the astronauts, NASA called in the DOJ and its lawyers, who promptly sued the astronauts. The astronauts promptly called their congressmen. The congressmen rose to the occasion and in 2012 a new law resulted: Owners and Ownership-Artifacts of Astronauts. This law granted ownership of the artifacts to the astronauts.
In the meantime, astronaut Alan Bean, who was married at the time of his Apollo 12 mission, divorced and married Leslie. Before their 1982 wedding, Alan and Leslie signed a prenuptial agreement that stated each other’s separate property would remain separate, and that any gifts either of them received during marriage would also be separate property.
Alan signed his will in 2007. In it, he made detailed provisions for the handling of his space artifacts, which he identified as his separate property. He specifically encouraged his co-executors to loan the 2012 Apollo hammer to the National Air and Space Museum and then ultimately distribute it, together with other space artifacts, to his children’s trusts.
Alan remained married to Leslie until his death in 2018. His will was probated in Harris County and Leslie and Amy, Alan’s daughter from his first marriage, were named co-executors. Unfortunately, Leslie and Amy, to quote the appellate opinion, “could not agree on many issues concerning the administration of the estate.” One of those issues was the Apollo hammer.
Leslie asserted that the Apollo hammer was not covered by the 1982 prenuptial agreement because it was merely on loan to Alan from Nasa at that time. It therefore was not his separate property.
The appellate court, after stating the case presented an issue of first impression concerning the proper marital characterization of property received by an Astronaut during Apollo-era space programs, disagreed. It noted that separate property was anything a person owned or claimed before marriage. Even if he had not owned it at the time, Alan had clearly claimed the Apollo hammer before he married. The 2012 law merely confirmed his claim. Hedging its position slightly, the court said the law could also be interpreted as gifting the Apollo hammer to Alan. Either way, the hammer had been Alan’s separate property and Alan’s widow did not own any part of it.
The Texas laws of probate and separate property apparently apply to the moon and back.
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Virginia Hammerle is in her fourth decade of practicing law. She is Board Certified in Civil Trial by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and an Accredited Estate Planner. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.hammerle.com. This column does not constitute legal advice.