What They Did – And Didn’t – Include
In honor of the Fourth of July, we looked at two of the founding fathers’ estate planning documents. The Last Will and Testaments of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin offer a glimpse into an emerging United States. In the centuries since, much of Estate Planning has not changed; its purpose, importance, and even the terms used have largely remained the same. These two wills contain a wealth of history, and even at a few estate planning mistakes to avoid!
George Washington’s Will of 1799
George Washington had what is today known as a holographic will—a fifteen-page, handwritten document he prepared himself. And he prepared it only six months before he passed! In the will itself, he acknowledge the shortcomings of the DIY style. “The construction of which it will readily be perceived that no professional character has been consulted…and that, although it has occupied many of my leisure hours to digest, and to through it into its present form, it may, notwithstanding, appear crude and incorrect,” he wrote. Spoiler alert: though his will was not crude by any means, it took almost fifty years to settle his estate.
The former president was impressively thorough in his will, including every detail in the designation of his assets. He even thought of the perishable food in his kitchen, gifting, “the liquors and groceries which may be on hand at the time of my decease,” to his wife.
Unlike many holographic wills we see, Washington thought through many of life’s eventualities. His will stipulates not only what is to happen after his death, but after the death of his heirs. To streamline this process, we would have created a Revocable Living Trust for Washington— it would have saved his heirs decades of probate.
Education was a priority for the former president, and his will reflects this. He donated $4,000 from his estate to the Academy in the town of Alexandria (now known as the Washington and Lee University.) The donation was, “for the purpose of Educating such Orphan children, or the children of such other poor and indigent persons as are unable to accomplish it with their own means.” Washington’s gift was in the form of shares in the Bank of Alexandria and would have been the equivalent of roughly $15,000 today.
The former president’s passion for education did not stop at one charitable donation, however. The next passage in Washington’s Will addresses one of his dreams. It was a vision that, unable to fulfill in his lifetime, he hoped to achieve in his death. He begins, “it has always been a source of serious regret with me, to see the youth of these United States sent to foreign Countries for the purpose of Education, often before their minds were formed.”
Washington’s Posthumous Solution
In his will, Washington offered a solution: to establish a university in a central part of the United States. This university would, “spread systematic ideas through all parts of this rising Empire,” he wrote. In Washington’s vision, American youth would benefit from more than just the academics. Through the school, they would be, “enabled to free themselves in a proper degree from those local prejudices and habitual jealousies…which when carried to excess, are never failing sources of disquietude to the Public mind, and pregnant of mischievous consequences to this Country.”
Towards this end, Washington bequeathed 50 shares in the Potomac Company in his will. The funds were to help establish a university in the District of Columbia, “under the auspices of the General Government, if that government should incline to extend a fostering hand towards it.” Today, the George Washington University flourishes in DC. Unfortunately, this is in no part due to those 50 shares. In the words of the university’s website, “Congress never extended a ‘fostering hand.’ Potomac Company passed out of existence and Washington’s bequest became worthless.”
Despite the thoroughness and detail in Washington’s Will, he made several rookie mistakes that complicated its execution. For example, he named seven people as his executors – jointly! Though he tacked on a provision aimed at avoiding conflict, conflict inevitably arose. “All disputes shall be decided by three impartial and intelligent men, known for their probity and good understanding,” he wrote, “two to be chosen by the disputants—each having the choice of one—and the third by those two.” Thoughtful, but failed to keep his family out of probate court.
Benjamin Franklin’s Last Will and Testament(s)
Benjamin Franklin wrote several wills over his lifetime, a saga of documents that illustrate how dynamic estate planning should be. The stark differences in two of Franklin’s wills—the former written in 1757 and the latter in 1788—is why we offer complimentary three-year estate plan reviews to all our clients. Anything and everything can change; it is crucial to update one’s estate plans to reflect their new situation.
Benjamin Franklin’s 1757 will was simple and light-hearted. Like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin hand-wrote this will, completing it in New York while awaiting passage to England.
The bulk of Franklin’s mid-life will was specific bequests—testamentary gifts of a specific item or monetary amount. His Air Pump with its Apparatus and his Natural Curiosities were gifted to his son; Yale College received his Electrical Apparatus; 1,000 pounds were bequeathed to his wife; 20 pounds to his sister; ten pounds to each child of one Josiah Davenport.
Designating gifts in specific amounts generally ends one of two ways: either there will be more in the estate than was designated in the will, or there will be less. Thankfully, Franklin addressed both possibilities. He included a critical provision in his will: a residuary clause. A residuary clause ensures any assets that remain after the will has been executed will be distributed according to the deceased’s wishes.
The inventor also addressed the possibility his estate would be insufficient to meet his designations. Alas, his wife and children were the only ones mentioned in this clause. “And if by any unforeseen Change in my Circumstances,” Franklin writes, “my Estate should appear to my Executors to be incapable of paying the abovementioned several Legacies in Money to my Wife and Children…I will that no Preference shall be given, but a proportional Abatement or Payment made of each.”
The 1788 Will
Franklin’s 1757 will was revoked by a later Last Will and Testament, written in 1788. This was his final will – the celebrated inventor died just two years after its completion. In the time between the two wills, his assets had significantly changed, his wife had passed away, his daughter had married, and his son had sided with the British during the revolutionary war. His final Last Will and Testament tells the story of a very different man and situation.
Despite the differences with his son, Franklin still leaves him land and absolves him of his debts to him. “The part he acted against me in the late war, which is of public notoriety, will account for my leaving him no more of an estate he endeavored to deprive me of,” Franklin wrote.
This interjection of sentiment continues throughout the will, narrating much of Franklin’s life. In leaving his daughter a portrait set with over four hundred diamonds, for example, he tacks on a stipulation: neither she, nor her daughters, may use the diamonds as jewelry. He expresses his opinions on, “the expensive, vain, and useless fashion of wearing jewels in this country,” succinctly.
Quite the Legacy
In this latter will, Franklin addressed a key component lacking in the prior: his memorial instructions. By including this clause, Franklin ensures his loved ones could bury him with peace of mind, knowing they were following his wishes. “I would have my body buried with as little expense or ceremony as may be,” he wrote. Unfortunately, this is all he wrote on the matter. We always include memorial instructions in our estate planning documents, but generally recommend leaving a bit more detail than Franklin did.
In Benjamin Franklin’s final will, it is apparent he’s nearing the end of his life – he fully utilizes the document for the dynamic instrument it can be. His will includes all his last thoughts, desires, and reflections. It summarizes not only posthumous instructions but the legacy of his life. Having written such a document, however, Franklin couldn’t resist editing it – a lengthy codicil was tacked on less than a year later.
Today, after centuries of lessons learned in probate court, estate planning has become more refined and carefully worded. At Susan Hunt Law, we design distinctive plans for each of our clients. Our plans reflect not only our clients’ unique lives and wishes, but protect their family and assets against future potentialities. We would have had just a few suggestions for the Founding Fathers!