Looking at Thomas Jefferson’s Will

I thought it would be fun to take a look at what our founding fathers did with their estate planning, given that we’ve recently celebrated Independence Day. The people responsible for writing the Declaration of Independence, like Thomas Jefferson, appear to have wanted a better future and they certainly had a knack for writing. Thomas Jefferson’s Last Will and Testament, which he wrote himself, is known as a holographic Will. However, this is not something any of us should be doing today, because you will make mistakes, just as Thomas Jefferson did writing his Will. 

What Thomas Jefferson’s Will Said…

By the time Thomas Jefferson wrote his Will he had already lost his wife and was a single person. It was discovered that he had several executors involved, at different stages. In his Will, Thomas Jefferson details what he wanted done with the real estate. The most interesting aspect about Jefferson’s Will, is that he had some issues with his son in law, Thomas M. Randolph. Jefferson’s daughter Martha, would have been married to Thomas M. Randolph, and it would appear that Thomas Randolph had debt, as well as creditor issues and an insolvent estate. 

Trusts Were Used Over 200 Years Ago

It stands to reason that Jefferson was concerned about leaving the inheritance to his son-in-law. While it was the customary thing to do in those times, leaving money to a man, it might have been liable to Thomas Randolph’s creditor issues. Martha may also never have got any inheritance. Jefferson decided to put the money in a trust for the benefit of his daughter Martha, and he named Thomas J. Randolph, his grandson, as Trustee of the Trust. It was also Thomas J. Randolph’s duty to take care of his mom. If Martha didn’t spend the money in the trust, her son Thomas would inherit it.

The interesting thing about this, is that we do a similar thing today. It is very common in my estate planning practice that we don’t give our kids their inheritance outright. It is preferable for our clients kids to receive their inheritance in a trust. By doing this, it protects assets from any potential divorces, lawsuits and creditor issues. 

Trusts are Valuable Tools

Let’s say I’ve got a daughter named Susie, and I want to leave an inheritance for her. If I leave Susie her inheritance outright, she could potentially lose it if she goes through a divorce or gets sued. The Pennsylvania trust code allows for me to leave Susie her inheritance in a separate share trust, so she can be in control of the money. She can use the money however she wants, but if the money is in the trust, it is protected from her potential issues. I want to know that I’ve protected my daughter, and nobody else can take the money. This is essentially what Jefferson was trying to do. 

On Second Thoughts…

Thomas Jefferson signs the will for which his grandson was the executor, on March 16, 1826. The next day, he decided to amend his Will and he included a moral obligation on his daughter Martha. Thomas recommended for his daughter, Martha, to take care of Thomas’s sister, who was also Martha’s Aunt. It is quite unusual using the word ‘recommendation’, because it doesn’t seem legally enforceable, and Martha had no legal obligation to her Aunt Anne. It would have been better to set aside some money for Anne instead of putting a moral obligation on Martha. Another change Thomas Jefferson made is that he was even more explicit about his son-in-law Thomas Randolph not receiving any inheritance. That appears to have been his final Will with no further changes.

Work with Us

It is foolhardy to write your own Will. You’re not Thomas Jefferson, and you don’t want to do it on your own. We need to do real planning if you want to accomplish real objectives. I often have retired couples telling me that once they have created their estate plan, they feel relieved knowing that they have put together a plan to provide for what would happen if they get sick or pass away. This is one of the biggest stressors clients have when they come to us because none of us knows what the future holds, but having a plan can provide for any eventuality.

It’s interesting that 230 years ago, Thomas Jefferson wanted to give Martha her inheritance in a trust. He was worried about his son-in-law’s debt and a possible divorce. The logic that they used 230 years ago, still holds true today. It is a pity that marriages we thought were perfect, aren’t. Divorce is so prevalent, and we need to plan for this possibility. 

Come To Our Workshop

We encourage you to come to one of our upcoming estate planning and elder law workshops. We can teach you to be your own Thomas Jefferson, and to plan so that your assets will benefit your family. Register now on for one of our workshops. If you need some help give us a call on 724-546-4227.