Estate Planning Lessons We Learned from US Presidents

Posted by Rebecca Yingst Price | Feb 16, 2024 | 0 Comments

On the 3rd Monday of February, we celebrate several US presidents who made noteworthy contributions to our country. As with any discussion that involves politics, a discussion about US presidents risks generating a variety of opinions about which reasonable minds can disagree. However, politics is NOT the focus of this month's newsletter. Rather, our aim is to examine 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 our First US President, who lived 67 years from February 22, 1732 to December 14, 1977.

Washington was arguably the most universally beloved and revered US president. Volumes have 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.[1]

It is worth mentioning that 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.[2] 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 we do not have the wealth that Washington died with, we can still be very deliberate and thoughtful when it comes to how much, and to whom, we leave our wealth and meaningful items of personal property. By spending sufficient time and effort to think about and memorialize how we want to leave our possessions to our loved ones, we can leave a real legacy that has the potential to benefit generations.

THOMAS JEFFERSON our Third US President, who lived 83 years from April 13, 1943 until July 4, 1826.

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 nevertheless struggled to manage his financial affairs during life. In addition, he was saddled with both 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 still had 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.[3] The unfortunate result of these circumstances was that 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. This issue arises most often when a business or farm owner has significant wealth tied up in their business or land but little cash in reserve to settle debts or pay transfer taxes at death. This can cause the families left behind to 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 will shortly come 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 our Sixteenth US President, who lived 47 years from February 12, 1809 until April 15, 1856.

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.[4] 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 demise, sadly leaving others to guess what his wishes would have been with respect to his property. The family undoubtedly experienced significant distress and frustration as a result 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

There is a great deal more that could be discussed and learned from the experiences of these and other US presidents as it relates to estate planning. We hope these lessons will help you think about your own estate planning and what you might want to do differently going forward. Give us a call at 216-991-6200 if this newsletter has prompted you to consider any changes you may need to make in your own planning. We would be more than happy to visit with you and discuss your thoughts. Until then, Happy President's Day!

[1] George Washington's Last Will and Testament, July 9, 1799, George Washington's Mount Vernon, (last visited Jan. 24, 2022).

[2] George Washington, Wikipedia,,_civilian,_and_political_life_(1755%E2%80%931775) (last visited Jan. 24, 2022).

[3] Katie Ross, Presidential Debt: Which President Racked Up $100,000 in Debt? (Aug. 24, 2021), American Consumer Credit Counseling, Inc.,

[4] Danielle and Andy Mayoras, Are You Better Prepared Than Lincoln Was? (Dec. 4, 2012), Forbes,

Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide, nor should it be relied upon as, legal advice, nor does the receipt of this content create an attorney-client relationship.

About the Author

Rebecca Yingst Price

Attorney Rebecca Yingst Price has devoted her legal career to helping families and individuals with estate planning, estate and trust administration, and residential real estate. She believes that there is no substitute for proper legal planning to protect loved ones. Ms. Price has vast experien...


There are no comments for this post. Be the first and Add your Comment below.

Leave a Comment

Ibis Legacy Law, LLC Is Here for You

At Ibis Legacy Law, LLC, we focus on Estate Planning, Real Estate, Business Law, Trust Administration, Probate Administration, Premarital Planning, and Legacy Planning and we are here to listen to you and help you navigate the legal system.

Contact Us Today

Ibis Legacy Law, LLC is committed to answering your questions about Estate Planning, Real Estate, Business Law, Trust Administration, Probate Administration, Premarital Planning, and Legacy Planning law issues in Ohio. We'll gladly discuss your case with you at your convenience. Contact us today to schedule an appointment.