4th of July: Why Estate Planning is Ultimately About Freedom

We will be celebrating our country’s Independence next week. An honor fought for with the American Revolution and solidified by our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Thanks to this war and these documents we truly have freedom — the freedom to dispose of our property how and to whom we like.

According to Jeffrey R. Gottlieb, an Illinois estate planning and probate attorney, who wrote a great post as a testament to this freedom, “our founding fathers themselves were revolutionary in their own estate planning. Some of their Wills were quite detailed and sophisticated, showing a great deal of foresight and utilizing trust structures that have only become widely used in more recent history.”

His examples:

  • The Will of George Washingtonwas highly detailed and widely circulated.  Among other provisions, the first President left the bulk of his estate to be held for the benefit of his wife Martha for life under which she would receive the profits.  This looks like what we now know as a Marital QTIP Trust.  Washington named 7 co-executors (don’t try this).  Ultimately, Washington’s Will took 47 years until final settlement.
  • The Last Will and Testament of Thomas Jeffersonwas detailed and well considered.  Among other interesting provisions, Jefferson specifically stated that he did not leave a bequest to his son-in-law, Thomas Randolph, because he feared that it would be lost to his creditors.  Instead he left property in (a sort of spendthrift) trust for his daughter independently under which she held a power of appointment.  Jefferson believed the trust would then be protected for the benefit of his daughter and her family. Jefferson also requested that his slaves be freed and left considerable bequests on their behalf.
  • The Last Will and Testament of Benjamin Franklinshowed that Franklin truly believed that a penny saved is a penny earned.  Franklin’s Will included bequests to the cities of Boston and Philadelphia to provide low-interest loans to “young married artificers” who needed help starting businesses.  The gift to each city was the equivalent of about $2,000 each which Franklin calculated under the terms of his Will would grow to many millions after more than 100 years. He was right. The funds were used to provide more than 1,400 grants and were finally closed and disbursed after more than 200 years in 1990 with more than $4 million and $1.5 million respectively.

His point, though made several years ago is still extremely valid: “You don’t have to be a revolutionary to leave a legacy.”  Whatever your goals are for your property and your family — whatever it is that gives meaning to your life — you can preserve those and leave your mark.

Updated on 6-26-2020

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