Estate Planning Lessons Learned from U.S. Presidents

February 21 is the day on which we celebrate several US presidents who made noteworthy contributions to our country. Let’s look at a few of the important lessons we can learn from the estate planning of some of our country’s most famous political leaders.

George Washington

Washington was arguably the most universally beloved and revered US president. Much has been written about this man and what he accomplished during his life. One significant achievement that few people know about is the care Washington took to ensure that his final affairs were in order and that those who relied on him were cared for to the best of his ability. Washington’s last will and testament, widely available online in its entirety, shows that he thought carefully about his final affairs and those who depended upon him; he also remembered many individuals by making very thoughtful decisions and gifts of items of personal property or specific bequests.

Washington had a rather nontraditional family situation and had to carefully consider how his estate should be distributed among his loved ones. At age twenty-six, Washington married a widow, Martha Custis, who had two children of her own from her previous marriage, whom they raised together. After his stepson, John Custis, died during the war from an infection, Martha and George Washington raised John’s two youngest children as their own. As a result of his blended family, Washington carefully crafted the language of his will to provide very specific bequests to each of his surviving family members to ensure that they were well cared for long after he was gone.

Washington provides an excellent example in the level of thought and care with which he crafted his estate planning. Even if you do not have the wealth that Washington died with, you can still be very deliberate and thoughtful when it comes to how much, and to whom, you leave your wealth and meaningful personal property. By spending sufficient time and effort to think about and memorialize how you want to leave your possessions to your loved ones, you can leave a real legacy that has the potential to benefit generations.

Thomas Jefferson

While equally as famous as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson’s financial situation was far less favorable than Washington’s upon his death. Despite being a brilliant intellectual and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson struggled to manage his financial affairs during life. In addition, he was saddled with debts inherited from his family and that he had assumed by cosigning on a loan for a friend who died prematurely. When Jefferson passed away, he left significant debts that his family had to repay. Because Jefferson had valuable real property but very little liquid cash with which to pay his debts, his executor ultimately had to sell the family land at depressed market prices to raise enough cash to pay his debts. Unfortunately, very little of Jefferson’s property was able to be passed down within the family. 

Many families today face similar problems with illiquid or insolvent estates. For example, a business or farm owner often has significant wealth tied up in their business or land but little cash in reserve to settle debts or pay transfer taxes at death. The families left behind may feel intense pressure to sell the business or the land at significantly less than they might otherwise be able to sell it for under better conditions to raise the cash necessary in order to pay the debts or taxes that are due.

Life insurance is an important estate planning tool often used to provide sufficient cash to pay a deceased individual’s debts or transfer taxes. With the proper type and amount of life insurance, and by using certain estate planning tools such as irrevocable life insurance trusts, an individual can prevent a “land rich, cash poor” situation like that experienced by Thomas Jefferson’s family.

Abraham Lincoln

Another well-known and beloved US president—a lawyer, no less—very surprisingly died without a will or any other type of estate planning in place. Lincoln, like so many of us, quite possibly believed that he had many more years to address this important task. His tragic murder at the hands of a political malcontent plunged Lincoln’s family into a confusing and completely unfamiliar situation as they attempted to settle his affairs with no knowledge of where to begin. His oldest son, Robert, reached out to US Supreme Court Justice David Davis to take charge of Lincoln’s affairs. Justice Davis generously stepped away from his duties on the court to assist the Lincoln family with the local court process for settling Lincoln’s estate. His estate was divided between his wife and his living sons, most likely according to the default laws of the jurisdiction. However, it remains unclear whether this is how Lincoln would have wanted to see his property divided.

A key lesson is that no one knows when they will pass away. Even someone as important and well-versed in the law as Abraham Lincoln was caught unprepared for his untimely death, sadly leaving others to guess what his wishes would have been with respect to his property. The family undoubtedly experienced significant distress and frustration because of not having a clear understanding or plan in place for handling Lincoln’s final affairs. Had Lincoln put some basic planning such as a will or a trust in place prior to his death, perhaps he could have helped ease his family through a very challenging time when he was no longer available to them.

Learning from These Presidents

These presidents leave us with reminders that it is important to address our estate planning. We can learn from the examples of those who planned well, and also be challenged to plan better than those who did not do so well. Take the time now to address your own important estate planning. We would be happy to work with you to make sure your loved ones are well cared for. Happy President’s Day!