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Estate and Elder Law

The Estate Plans of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln

Today [Feb. 18th] being President's Day (officially known as Washington's Birthday), I thought it may be fun to take a look at the estate plans of two of our most famous presidents: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

George Washington's Last Will and Testament

President Washington wrote his Last Will and Testament himself, without consulting any "professional character." The will is dated July 9, 1799, less than six months before his death on December 14, 1799. He put his name at the bottom of almost all of the pages (still good practice to be sure that pages aren't substituted).  A Schedule of Property was attached to the will. It included all of Washington's property and assets not left to specific individuals (i.e, his residuary estate).

There were apparently two versions of Washington's will.  From his deathbed on December 14, 1799, Washington asked his wife to bring him both versions of the will. After reviewing them, he asked her to safeguard one of them and throw the other in the fire.

Instead of leaving his wife only a widow's portion of his estate, Washington's will leaves his entire estate to Mrs. Washington during her lifetime. At Mrs. Washington's death (which occurred on May 22, 1802), the estate was to be sold and distributed among various parties.

Washington's will included a few philanthropic bequests. He was particularly concerned with the custom of sending American youth to Europe for education, "often before their minds were formed, or they had imbibed any adequate ideas of the happiness of their own." He feared Europe had a corrupting influence on the youth, where they would acquire "not only habits of dissipation and extravagance, but principles unfriendly to Republican Government & to the true and genuine liberties of mankind; which, thereafter are rarely overcome."

To accomplish his charitable goals, Washington left 50 shares in the Potomac Company to be used to endow a university in the Disctrict of Columbia, a goal that was never reached. He also left 100 shares in the James River Company for the use and benefit of what eventually became Washington and Lee University.

Washington named seven executors of his Last Will and Testament. The executors included Martha Washington (wife), George Washington Parke Custis (Martha's grandson), and five of his nephews: William Augustine Washington, Bushrod Washington, George Steptoe Washington, Samuel Washington, and Lawrence Lewis.

Probate lasted for some time. The will was presented for probate on January 10, 1800. (The will was printed as a pamphlet a few days later and circulated throughout the country.)  The court appointed a group of appraisers to value the assets at Mount Vernon.  Although the appraisal was conducted fairly quickly (probably in 1800), the results weren't filed with the court until 1810. The estate was not closed until June 21, 1847.

Abraham Lincoln's Last Will and Testament

The most striking feature of Abraham Lincoln's Last Will and Testament was its absence. He died intestate!

On the day of his death, Lincoln's family contacted sitting United States Supreme Court Justice David Davis to assist with Lincoln's final affairs. The telegram read: "Please come at once to Washington to take charge of my father's affairs.  Answer." Justice Davis complied and was appointed as administrator of Lincoln's estate not long thereafter.

The Probate Lawyer Blog has a good summary of the estate proceeding. Unlike Washington's estate, Lincoln's final affairs were concluded quickly-his estate was finally settled in November 1867, less than three years from his death on April 15, 1865.

I find it interesting that neither man paid for professional assistance with his estate planning. Washington wrote his own will only a few months before his death; Lincoln didn't have one. Perhaps the reluctance to pay lawyers for estate planning reaches even the highest office of the state!

View more from Jeramie Fortenberry

About Jeramie Fortenberry

I am an attorney practicing trust and estate law in Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. I offer free telephonic consultations to clients with questions about probate and estate planning. Get yours today.


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