Estates of our Founding Fathers


I had a chance to do some sightseeing over Spring Break, where I enjoyed the Smithsonian Museums (the fruit of James Smithson’s endowment to America) and was pleased to see the Monticello tour end with an estate administration case study. This month’s newsletter briefly explores some of America’s founding fathers’ estates and the lessons we may learn from their cases. (Yes, I should have written this in February for President’s Day.)

Washington- Make Things Right

Our tour begins in Alexandria, at Mount Vernon, with the estate of the father of our country, George Washington. He prepared his twenty-nine page will himself, six months before he died in 1799. As one might expect from a practical and strategic man, George Washington’s will carefully made provisions to protect those important to him and correct outstanding issues.

His main concern was to provide for his family. His beloved wife, Martha, was provided for more generously than was customary at the time and he also forgave debts owed by his brother, nephews and brother-in-law.

The emancipation sections were more unusual and interesting. George Washington was a slaveowner who was deeply uneasy with slavery. He had spent a lot of time with abolitionists like Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and the Marquis de Lafayette. Despite his unease with slavery, he continued to own enslaved people his entire life and at his death he freed all the people enslaved to him in his will. This action had two very important limitations:

  • First, most of the enslaved workers at Mount Vernon were owned by the Custis family.
  • Second, the enslaved people who George freed were intermarried with those still enslaved by the Custis family.

George Washington’s gesture of manumission sent notice to the new nation that the problem of slavery had to be addressed.

Jefferson- Spend Your Last Cent on The Way Out

Next stop: Monticello, in Charlottesville. While George Washington was a practical man known for great actions, Thomas Jefferson was a less practical man known for big ideas. Schoolchildren know him as the third President, but his epitaph famously credited himself for three things: authoring the Declaration of Independence, drafting the Virginia Statue of Religious Freedom, and founding the University of Virginia.

Jefferson’s attention to business endeavors suffered from the time spent in his public life- he was not home to manage his estate for much of his adulthood, having served in Europe, New York, and Washington for many years. He also picked up tastes for expensive French wines and such during his time as Ambassador to France and borrowed heavily to finance his lifestyle.

Many clients tell us they want their last check to bounce- that is to ‘spend it all’ and enjoy life while they can. Mr. Jefferson certainly used his credit to live a comfortable life. As expected, this meant that his death was also a call for his creditors to make good on their claims and collect on the debts. His home was sold, his land was sold, and his chattels were sold. Legally regarded as chattels, his enslaved workers were auctioned off on the back porch of Monticello and literally ‘sold down the river’ to the new slaveowners. Many of these people never saw their families again.

Franklin- Pay It Forward

With a nod to my brother in Philadelphia, our estate tour makes its final stop in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. Benjamin Franklin lived a truly extraordinary life and worked to unite the colonies before the other Founding Fathers. He was an accomplished writer, printer, diplomat, and inventor.

Benjamin Franklin’s will has many similarities to Washington’s. He provides for family, forgives debts, and settles his business affairs and even donates his ‘Electrical Apparatus’ to Yale. Franklin, a published and vocal abolitionist, also owned enslaved people and freed them in his will.

Ben Franklin often had difficult relations with family, but he loved his country. More interesting than his will was a trust he created. He set aside one thousand pounds (roughly $125,000 in current value) each for his home city of Boston and his adopted home city of Philadelphia. These funds were not immediately available- he wanted them to grow and benefit future generations. The cities used the trust funds to finance mortgages, found schools and educate citizens as they grew. These bequests still benefit Ben Franklin’s two home cities to this day.

Lessons Learned

America was founded by wise people and colorful characters; both such categories provide ample learning opportunity. In short, we should be inspired by Franklin to do good. We should live well like Mr. Jefferson. We should always strive to make things right as did Washington. Finally, note we only know all these details about the wills because probate records are public. One more reason for privacy-minded clients to get a living trust.

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