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Estate Planning Lessons from George Washington (And Other Presidents)

With all the attention we pay to wills and trusts—how necessary one might be, what the options are, how and to whom property should be distributed—it is easy to forget that these documents are actually… well, they’re interesting.  These are the documents in which we make our final wishes known.  This is often where our true selves come out; who we liked best and what we valued most.

A trust is a private document and not available to the general public, but luckily for all the genealogists and historians out there, a last will and testament, once it has gone through probate, is a matter of public record.  Here, for example, in honor of President’s Day, is an online copy of George Washington’s Will.  What a telling document!  In it, among other things, Washington expresses his desire to free his slaves (and the obstacles to that wish), and his desire to fund a university, chiefly in order to prevent the youth of the newly independent United States from being—

sent to foreign Countries for the purpose of Education, often before their minds were formed, or they had imbibed any adequate ideas of the happiness of their own; contracting, too frequently, not only habits of dissipation and extravagance, but principles unfriendly to Republican Government & to the true and genuine liberties of mankind.”

A last will and testament can be very revealing indeed.  Interestingly, President Abraham Lincoln left no will—and he was a prominent lawyer who should have known better!  President Harry S. Truman included careful tax planning in his last will and testament.  President Warren G. Harding must have had some kind of premonition when he conveniently decided to write his will 6 weeks before his sudden death.

It is John F. Kennedy whose will is the most haunting, though.  He seems to have had the curse of foresight that occasionally attends us all, when he began his will with the words “I, JOHN F. KENNEDY, married, and residing in the City of Boston, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, being of sound and disposing mind and memory, and mindful of the uncertainty of life…”

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