top of page

George Washington | Wills of the Rich and Famous

In this episode of Wills of the Rich and Famous, Attorney Thomas B. Burton looks at the Last Will and Testament of George Washington, the American military officer, statesman, and Founding Father who served as the first president of the United States from 1789 to 1797.

Want to know what type of estate planning documents are best for your situation? Download a free copy of my easy estate planning guide. Obtain Your Free Will vs. Trust Estate Planning Guide here.

➮ Subscribe to Burton Law LLC’s channel to get notified when we post new videos. Subscribe here

Welcome back to Wills of the Rich and Famous!

I'm your host Attorney Thomas Burton and once again, we're going to be looking at the will, the last will and testament of a rich or a famous person and applying lessons from their plan to your own estate planning.

So here's the book I have and today a very interesting selection, we're going to be looking at the father of our country, the first president George Washington, the will of George Washington, our nation's perhaps most famous general and famous first president.

Let's dive right in, when he died in 1799, George Washington was reported to be one of the wealthiest men in the young nation. He owned more than 33,000 acres of land including over 23,000 in Virginia, 5,000 in Kentucky in large tax in Maryland, New York in the northwest territory. He owned corporate stocks worth over $25,000 dollars and his livestock consisted of 640 sheep, 329 cows, horses and mules. Washington also owned hundreds of slaves and if you've heard about his story before, you'll know that his will

revealed his personal thoughts on the slavery question and the will states - "Upon the decease of my wife, it is my will and desire that all slaves which I hold in my own right, shall receive their freedom and whereas among those who will receive freedom according to this device, there may be some who from old age or bodily infirmities and others who on account of their infancy that will be unable to support themselves, it is my will and desire that all shall be comfortably clothed and fed by my heirs while they live and I do expressly forbid the sale or transportation out of the said commonwealth of Virginia, of any slave I may die possessed of under any presence whatever" and it goes on.

So if you've read his story, you'll remember that his will freed the slaves he had upon his death. So that's one aspect of Washington's will that have been examined quite extensively and unfortunately, at that time slaves were viewed as property, so this was something he could do through the will.

So it says at age 27, Washington had married Martha Curtis, a wealthy Virginia widow who had two children from her prior marriage. Martha outlived her husband dying in 1802 and she is the primary beneficiary under his will. Under item one of the will, he gives her a life interest in almost all of his entire estate as well as outright gifts including the liquors and groceries that were on hand at the time of his decease. So he used what's called a life interest, granting her the right to use this property for life and then there would ultimately be a different beneficiary upon her death but he did give her outright the liquors and groceries upon his death.

George Washington died without any natural children. Nonetheless, he treated his nephews and nieces and wife's prior children with paternal affection. Under the third section, he states - "And whereas it has always been my intention, since my expectation of having issue has ceased to consider the grandchildren of my wife in the same light as I do my own relations, more especially by the tomb whom we have reared from their earliest infancy. I give and bequeath the residue of my Mount Vernon Estate not already devised to my nephew Bushrod Washington.

In addition to Martha, he left his famous home Mount Vernon to his nephew Bushrod Washington and I've actually visited Mount Vernon but I did not recall that Washington left it to his nephew. So some of my clients I work with don't have children or their children are predeceased and we are sometimes looking to the nephews or nieces for gifts and this would be one very famous example of that giving Mount Vernon to Bushrod Washington.

"To my nephew Bushrod Washington, I give it bequeath all the papers in my possession which relate to my civil and military administration of the affairs of this country. I leave to him also such of my private papers as are worth preserving. To my brother Charles Washington, I give and bequeath the gold-headed cane left me by Dr. Franklin in his will" and I'm quite sure that refers to Dr. Benjamin Franklin, a gold-headed cane which I'm sure is quite something.

So that would be a very famous example of a gift of tangible personal property, a gold-headed cane from Dr. Washington to General de Lafayette, I give a pair of finely wrought steel pistols taken from the enemy in the revolutionary war."

Wow! So what an item of tangible personal property! Sometimes we discuss with my clients what is tangible personal property and not everyone has pistols from the revolutionary war or a gold cane from Benjamin Franklin but, but this illustrates what tangible personal property is, it something you possess like that, an item that you can give to someone else and it generally doesn't have a title or deed like real estate.

The bulk of Washington's land rich estate was to be sold with the proceeds divided among 23 friends and relatives. Washington named his ailing wife Martha and five male members of his family William Washington, George Washington George Steptoe Washington, Samuel Washington, Lawrence Lewis and the ubiquitous Bushrod to be his executor.

He named five executors which is quite unusual but with a very large and famous estate like this, I could see why and who am I to question the wisdom of George Washington?

After naming his executors, Washington cautioned that having endeavored to be plain and explicit in all the devices, even in that at the expense of prolixity. Perhaps of tautology. "I hope and trust that no disputes will arise concerning them.

You can see he put in there, in his very vivid and formal language his hope that no one would fight over his wishes as expressed in the will. Despite this admonition, Washington's will provide a mechanism for any disputes to be arbitrated by three impartial and intelligent men known for their probity and good understanding.

I often, in trusts I draft, include an arbitration clause that says, if there's a dispute over the terms of this trust, it would go to binding arbitration rather than litigation because litigation in today's day and age is very expensive. By the time you pay for attorneys, court reporters, transcripts and all of the related costs of litigation it adds up fast and arbitration and mediation are not cheap either but they can be more cost effective than formal court litigation.

So even George Washington in 1799, provided an alternative dispute mechanism which was this arbitration provision by three impartial and intelligent men known for their probity and good understanding.

So I would say if George Washington, the father of our country, saw the wisdom in this, you could likely borrow from this wisdom as well for your own estate.

Regarding the plans for his burial and funeral, Washington's will states - "The family vault at Mount Vernon requiring repairs and being improperly situated besides, I desire that a new one of brick and upon a larger scale may be built and it is my expressed desire that my corpse may be entered in a private manner without parade or funeral oration" and the author here says, "Perhaps one secret to Washington's great leadership ability was his modesty and lack of ostentation." I think anyone who studied Washington, would agree with that statement.

Washington signed his will in the summer before his death in 1799. The date he wrote at the end of the will, incorrectly omits the word nine and that explains the inconsistency with his final remark that the will was being signed in the 24th year from the date of united states independence in 1776. Perhaps Washington was tired at the end of his illustrious and incomparable career and after having written the 30 page will by hand.

Will dated July 9th, 1799, signed at Mount Vernon, Virginia.

So he wrote this 30 page will by hand, can you imagine doing that likely with a quilt pen and ink, inkwell! That is quite something!

Now one other takeaway from this will I will note is Washington had what we would call a 'Holographic Will', meaning hand written and in Virginia, at the time that was legal. Now some states still allow holographic wills but a lot of states don't. Wisconsin doesn't allow a handwritten will. it must be typed. signed by the testator but some states out west. still allow a holographic will and there's certain requirements in order to meet it and you can see why in 1799. holographic wills were allowed and popular before modern mass adoption of typewriters and things like this.

Washington wrote 30 pages by hand and in that wonderful, beautiful flowing language. As a private individual, I mean obviously a man of great intellect and leadership but to my knowledge, Washington was not an attorney by training unlike some of the founding fathers. So this will is quite something and it would be interesting to see it on display, if it's on display somewhere but the takeaway here is that you can borrow like I say, some of this wisdom from George Washington, the ideas about dispute resolution using impartial sort of an arbitration provision and his expressed desire that people not fight over his estate and his focus on clarity, laying everything out clearly.

As I said in the beginning, some people have heard of Washington's Will and you may have heard about Mount Vernon but it's very interesting to see in depth, how his wisdom as the father of the country, translated not only during life but after his death, laying out his wishes clearly and then even expressing his wishes regarding the funeral without parade or funeral or ration. He took care of those he loved, in a well-thought-out manner similar to how he lived his life.

I enjoyed learning more about the will of George Washington like I said many of us are familiar with parts of his life story but the very ending, I couldn't have told you, until reading more in this book.

I hope you enjoyed this journey as well and again, the focus of this series is to look at the wills of rich and famous people and there's often lessons we can learn whether in a state of any size that can be applied to your own life as well.

Thanks for tuning in and if you've enjoyed this video, please consider giving it a LIKE so others can see and benefit from the information as well.

Thanks for watching and we'll see you next time.

© 2022 Burton Law LLC. All Rights Reserved. Transcript and captions provided for ease of access for the hearing impaired. For questions about this topic, or to suggest a topic for a future blog post, please contact the office.


bottom of page