On the third Monday of February each year, Americans celebrate a federal holiday commonly referred to as Presidents’ Day, but on the books, this holiday remains “Washington’s Birthday.” Our first president was actually born on February 22, 1732. He died on December 14, 1799, only four months after he completed his Last Will and Testament, which he signed and dated the ninth day of July in 1799.
It is intriguing to think that someone as wealthy, powerful, and intelligent as George Washington was only months from dying without any written statement as to his final wishes. More recently, the 2016 deaths of celebrities young and old, like David Bowie, Merle Haggard, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Gene Wilder, Arnold Palmer, John Glenn, George Michael, Alan Thicke, and Carrie Fisher, should serve as a reminder to us all that none of us is promised another day. It is presumptuous to assume that we can put off until tomorrow something as important as planning for the wellbeing of our families after we’re gone.
But Washington scholars point out something interesting about Washington’s will. Even though Washington died shortly after completing his will, many believe that in writing this intriguing document, Washington set out more to assess where he stood in life than to wind things up in preparation for death. The tone of Washington’s will was not that of a person fearing the end; the language of Washington’s will and what we know of Washington’s life around the time that he put his final wishes into writing suggest that he was ambitiously planning for a prosperous future.
This lesson is perhaps one of the most important things we should take from the story of Washington and his will. Going through the process of planning your estate does not have to be (and should not be) a depressing project carried out with negative, fearful thoughts of death on our minds. Instead, the estate planning process should be a time to positively reflect on the past and ambitiously looking forward to the future.
Washington teaches us that an important first step in planning an estate is to take stock of where we’ve been and how we arrived in our current situation. We must organize in our minds and on paper the things we own and the people we want to include in our plan. An important second step in the planning process, which we also learn from Washington’s will, is that we must make a fair and realistic assessment of the management that will be required to properly maintain the legacy we’ve built considering the lessons of the past. Washington had significant real estate holdings and farming operations, and he knew they would require the management and supervision of knowledgeable individuals. He took those issues into consideration when writing his will.
It is just as important to plan for who will manage an estate and how they should go about accomplishing that task as it is to plan for who eventually gets what. That is an area of planning many people tend to skip over. Most spend much time and mental energy listing out their assets and thinking through who should inherit which of those assets, but many spend far less effort thinking through who has the time, temperament, and ability to properly manage their estate. Far more legal battles seem to center on the individual named as administrator and on his or her actions in administering the estate than on what assets go where.
Your assets may not be as complex as those owned by George Washington when he died, but even bank accounts, investments, and IRAs need competent management when passing through an estate. Too many times, people preparing their estate plans give no thought to this fact when they designate an administrator to manage their estate. Too many times, planners name to important management roles certain individuals who have difficulty managing their own, simple day-to-day affairs, and the estate suffers as a result.
Learn from George Washington. Proudly examine the past and ambitiously look to the future when you plan your estate, and think realistically about the management skills that will be needed to preserve your legacy. Keeping these lessons in mind will make the process more enjoyable now and lead to a more successful transition of wealth when the time comes.