Last Wills of Former U.S. Presidents

Last Wills of Former U.S. Presidents

by Heather R. Johnson, January 2016

From minimum wage workers to the president of the United States, everyone should have a will. Many individuals can make a will themselves. People who own multiple pieces of property, have more complicated families, or have achieved celebrity status may want to consult with a lawyer to create their last will and testament.

A last will and testament designates what happens to your property and possessions after you die. Last wills may also designate care and custody of dependents and management of accounts. If you die without a will, the courts decide how to distribute your assets. Your family may get drawn into a lengthy probate process that may not end the way you would want.

Our U.S. presidents often have complex assets to divide and, occasionally, unusual requests. As you reflect on their accomplishments this Presidents' Day (and enjoy your day off), take a look at bequests made in some famous past presidents' wills.

George Washington

Our nation's first past president naturally bequeathed his entire estate to his wife, Martha. Upon her death, President Washington requested that all of their slaves (they owned 317 total) receive their freedom. Washington forbade his heirs from selling or transporting the slaves out of Virginia. Our first president also allocated $4,000 to establish a “Free" school to educate orphaned, poor, and indigent children, and designated 50 shares of stock to form a university in Washington D.C.

John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy gifted tangible personal property to various individuals, as one would expect, but also requested that the executor “pour over" the remainder of his estate to a revocable living trust. His wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, received a share in the trust and other property, with other assets distributed to cousins and other family members. Regarding charitable donations, JFK's will states that he is “certain" that the contributions he and his family have made to The Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation “will be applied after my death without bias or discrimination to the fulfillment of the Foundation's eleemosynary purposes."

Richard Nixon

The only U.S. president to resign from office, Richard Nixon left a detailed will reminiscent of many celebrity wills. His first item makes a monetary bequest to the Richard Nixon Library, minus legal fees incurred in the case of Richard Nixon v. The United States of America. Nixon also bequeaths his personal diaries to the library.

Thomas Jefferson

Like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson freed some of his slaves through his will. He freed three older men who had worked for him for decades, and also freed two of Sally Hemings' four children. (The other two Jefferson allowed to “escape.") Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson's wife, Martha. Jefferson also gave land to grandsons Francis Eppes and Thomas J. Randolph. In a codicil, Jefferson gave friend and former president James Madison his gold-mounted walking staff.

The president without a will

Of our former presidents, only four have died without a will: Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Garfield, and Grant. Abraham Lincoln, the first assassinated president and the first presidential patent holder, was also the first to die intestate.

Most of our U.S. presidents left reasonably standard wills, but when property, charitable foundations, and large families become involved, the complexity resembles many famous people's wills. No matter how complex—or simple—your situation, don't follow Abraham Lincoln's lead. Designate your assets in a will.