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5 minute read

Presidents Day: Important Estate Planning Lessons We Can All Learn From Former US Presidents

This Presidents Day, Trust & Will explores the estate plans of presidents past (or lack thereof) and the impact these actions have had on their legacies.

Presidents Day goes far beyond furniture sales and car dealership promotions; it's a celebration of legacies forged by leaders before us. While the word "legacy" takes on many different meanings, at the desk of Trust & Will it relates to estate planning. This Presidents Day, we take a look at some of the most prominent leaders in our nation's history and find out what estate planning lessons  can be gleaned from them. You might be surprised to learn that there were indeed some Oval Office estate planning fails (how unpresidential). We also hope you'll be inspired by those who had well-executed estate plans in place. Follow along as Trust & Will lays out the red, white, and blueprints of presidential estate plans past.

George Washington

George Washington, a well-known figure admired by historians, not only made a significant impact on the United States but also left behind a detailed Will. While this may not be the highlight of history books, this was one of his last acts as a leader, symbolically passing on his property and rights to the right people. Washington's Will was not only a document of inheritance but also one that provided for his loved ones and ensured the continuity of his legacy.

Many of us can relate to Washington's need to plan for the unique family dynamics that come with a blended family. He married Martha Custis, a widow with two children from a previous marriage. This presented distinct challenges that required a careful approach to distributing his estate. The unexpected passing of his stepson, John Custis, added to the complexity, as Washington and Martha took on the responsibility of caring for John's two youngest children. Reflecting his concern for his family's future, Washington's Will was meticulously crafted to ensure that each member of his extended family received their rightful share, demonstrating his intention to provide for them in the long run.

Washington's Will demonstrated an understanding of compound interest, a concept that was ahead of its time when it was written. By assigning specific amounts and shares to family members and spouses, he set a precedent for future estates. What we can learn from Washington is how helpful it can be to use specific language and careful planning to help prevent division within the family, minimize taxes, and provide long-term financial support long after you're gone.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, like many others, had an estate plan that he never considered truly complete. He was often regarded as an intellectual who constantly changed his views, and his estate plan served as an accurate reflection. He treated the documents as dynamic and updated them continuously alongside his ever-shifting stances on wealth and morality.

This teaches a valuable lesson in estate planning: your documents should reflect the current circumstances of your life and align with your objectives. Thus, it's best to treat them as living documents. The circumstances of your life will ebb and flow, which creates a need to routinely review your estate plan.

Jefferson's forward-thinking in addressing the emancipation and financial support of his servants (enslaved individuals) upon his passing illustrates the breadth of considerations encompassed within a Will. While the execution of his intentions may not have unfolded as planned due to his debts, it underscores the fact that estate planning goes beyond just financial assets. It can represent your personal wishes, including any of your ethical beliefs. While you can make your estate plan very simple and straightforward, you can also leverage it to leave a legacy reflecting your values and making positive impacts.

It encompasses ethical convictions and personal wishes. This example highlights the complexity—and the necessity for clarity—of an estate plan in reflecting one's deepest values and ensuring they reverberate faithfully into the future.

John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy, much like Thomas Jefferson, secured his legacy through meticulous estate planning. In Kennedy's case, his approach to estate planning reflected both foresight and a firm understanding of his family's ongoing charitable mission. Kennedy bequeathed his tangible personal property thoughtfully to various individuals, a gesture that demonstrated the importance of physical mementos for relationships made throughout his life.

Kennedy employed what is known as a "pour over" Will, directing the remainder of his estate into a Revocable Living Trust—a savvy maneuver that reflected his preference for privacy. His wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, benefitted from a share in this Trust alongside other property. Other family members also received distributions from the Trust.

The former President also provided instructions regarding his charitable donations through his Will. The document states that he is "certain" of the contributions made by the Kennedy family to the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation would be applied "without bias or discrimination" to fulfill its mission.

When examining JFK's estate plan, it becomes evident how important it is to have clear intentions and to use legal tools strategically to ensure those intentions are fulfilled. It serves as a prime example of how estate planning can encompass not only financial assets but also one's ethical beliefs, guaranteeing that one's values continue to have an impact in the future.

Richard Nixon

The only U.S. president to resign from the Oval Office, Richard Nixon left a detailed Will. Although his presidency was troubled to say the least, Nixon demonstrated foresight in making sure -- through his estate plan -- that he could control at least his side of the story.

According to the New York Times, the Richard Nixon Library was the main beneficiary of his estate. Aside from legal fees incurred in the case of Richard Nixon v. The United States of America, a monetary bequest was made to his Presidential library (a pledge of $1.2 million.)

He also sought the contribution and preservation of his personal diaries. This act not only safeguards his historical materials but also reveals a more personal side of Nixon who sought to ensure his recollections could contribute to American history.

Nixon's Will also provided $50,000 to each of his four grandchildren. Three of the four grandchildren were also set to receive amounts ranging between $10,000 and $70,000 with the purpose of equalizing past gifts that were made during his lifetime.

What this reminds us of is that Wills are not all about possessions in terms of their economic value. They are an opportunity to control the narrative of our contributions to the world. In Nixon's case, this was especially important as his presidency ended in turmoil. He likely wanted to have some sense of control over how he might be remembered, even after his death.

Abraham Lincoln

It might surprise you to know that Abraham Lincoln died intestate. One of the most famous of the US presidents, one would imagine that he would have had his Will in place. However, he did not. Why would he have not had a Will? There are various theories, but no one is certain. Many believe that he was engrossed with his presidential duties (such as winning the Civil War), while others believe that he simply didn't think his estate was large enough to require a Will. According to Forbes, Lincoln's estate was worth $85,000, which today would amount to several million dollars. 

Whatever the reason, Lincoln's estate was administered under intestacy laws because there was no Will to use as guidance. The estate was settled in 1867 and was divided into three equal shares allocated to his widowed wife and two children. At the time of the settlement, the New York Times published an article revealing that Lincoln's debts only amounted to $38.31. Further, his close friend and sitting Supreme Court Justice David Davis settled the estate in Illinois and refused to charge a fee.

The Lincoln case is an example of a best-case scenario when it comes to intestacy. In this particular case, the estate was handled by not only a Supreme Court Justice, but a close friend who likely had Lincoln's wishes and loved ones' best interests in mind. However, others may not be so lucky. Administering an estate using intestacy laws can lead to complicated and sometimes unintended outcomes. While Lincoln's estate may have been settled well, it took years. The act of writing a Will is the only surefire way of controlling the outcomes of your estate.

Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson's presidency was complex to say the least. Professor of History Elizabeth Varon at the University of Virginia writes, "Johnson did more to extend the period of national strife than to heal the wounds of war," in reference to the period of Reconstruction following the Civil War.

Unlike Lincoln, Johnson's life did not conclude with an estate to be celebrated. While details are difficult to find, the absence of a Will would have cast shadows of doubt on how assets should be divided, adding on the burden of unplanned estate administration for his loved ones facing bereavement.

Garfield and Grant

In addition to presidents Lincoln and Johnson, two more leaders of the nation died without a Will: James A. Garfield and Ulysses S. Grant.

Ulysses S. Grant was a former Civil War hero whose life ended amidst bankruptcy and a bitter battle with an incurable form of cancer. Previously wealthy, Grant fell prey to an investment pyramid scheme and lost his wealth in a matter of hours. Even worse, he was diagnosed with an incurable form of throat and tongue cancer. Given just a few weeks to live, Grant was desperate to ensure the security of his wife Julia and their children. Here, he had a form of wealth to tap into: his memories of epic proportions. Famed writer Mark Twain had encouraged him to pen a memoir, so they struck a deal. Twain provided funds for Grant's cost of living while he wrote. In less than a year, Grant wrote 366,000 words. Exactly a week later, he passed away. However, he was able to do so with the peace of mind that his wife and his children would have financial security. Twain had delivered the good news that a 100,000 copies of the autobiography had already pre-sold.

James A. Garfield's demise was shocking - he was one of four U.S. presidents who were assassinated. In Garfield's case, it took place less than four months into his presidency. Interestingly, Garfield did not pass away until 80 days after the shooting. His death is described by PBS as "dirty and painful." He was survived by his wife and two teenage sons. It brings up questions regarding whether or not he would have had the wherewithal to put a Will in place given his condition.

What Garfield and Grant share in common is uncertainty and missed opportunities. Both leaders knew that their day of passing was imminent, and yet, departed this world with a legacy of questions rather than answers. They missed the opportunity to leave behind instructions for their loved ones.

The importance of documentation and delegation

Presidents, in particular, should know that their job comes with significant risk. While only four assassinations were successful, there were numerous other unsuccessful attempts to take our nation's leaders' lives. If not an assassination, then there is the threat of war. If not for these egregious circumstances, the stress of being the country's most important person (at least politically) can often lead to serious health issues. With this in mind, it is almost shocking that several presidents passed away without a Will in place. This means that they did not take the steps needed to express their final wishes in a legal manner, nor did they secure the financial futures of their loved ones by addressing the division of their assets. Last but not least, we can learn from examples that presidents have a wealth of power, knowledge, and wisdom that they can impart into the tapestry of the nation's history.

Whether it be leaving a legacy of political knowledge, documents and materials to donate for educational purposes, wealth to support charities, or even something drastic as freeing enslaved individuals, we have seen many examples of presidential estate planning that was done well.

Presidents absolutely have legacies to share for the public good, and that requires proper documentation.

Empower your own lineage with a legacy

So, what can we learn from our presidents past on this Presidents Day?

Presidential or not, the message is universal: documenting your wishes is critical.  It ensures that your loved ones are taken care of, and it allows you to leave a lasting legacy for the public good. Don't let important decisions be left in the hands of others or lost in legal battles. Take control of your future by creating a Will and estate plan that reflects your values and desires. Further, your documents should assign a trusted Executor and/or Trustee to ensure that your instructions are carried out in full. This is the only legal, surefire way that you can leave instructions for the care of your loved ones and ensure that the comprehensive consideration is provided to all impacted by your passing. By documenting your wishes and distributing your assets, you're ensuring a legacy for those you leave behind– which in itself brings about a lot of comfort and peace of mind for all involved.

Wondering what your next steps should be?

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Trust & Will is an online service providing legal forms and information. We are not a law firm and we do not provide legal advice.

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