On this Presidents Day, Mazza Law Center would like to highlight the brilliance and thoroughness of George Washington’s Last Will and Testament. If you enjoy presidential history half as much as attorney Danny Mazza, you’ll find this document fascinating…
The night before his death on December 14, 1799, a gravely ill, 67-year-old George Washington asked his wife Martha to bring him two hand drafted versions of his will. After reviewing both, he had an earlier one thrown in the fire and asked Martha to safeguard the other. This surviving Last Will and Testament was completed on July 9th, 1799 only six months before his death. He had prepared the will alone during his “leisure hours,” without, as he attested, any “professional character” being “consulted” or having “any Agency in the draught.”
The brilliant, handwritten document, called a holographic will, was presented for probate within a month of his passing by his executors to the Fairfax County Court. A few days later it was printed in Alexandria and then circulated throughout the country in pamphlet form. Interestingly, today holographic wills are not valid in most states, however Arizona is one of those few where handwritten wills are still legal.
Washington named seven executors of his Last Will and Testament, including his wife, his wife’s grandson, and five nephews. Probate lasted for quite some time. While the will was presented for probate on January 10, 1800, the results of court appointed appraisal of assets weren’t filed until 1810, and the estate was not formally closed until June 21, 1847.
George Washington’s Last Will and Testament includes the usual breakdown of land, property, and assets (a Schedule of Property was included), but more importantly the lucid and powerful prose of the text provides significant insight into his life, his deeply held beliefs, and his affections for family and friends.
For example, rather than the typical widow’s portion (which was customary at the time), he insisted that his “dearly beloved wife Martha” retain virtually all her husband’s property and the profits derived from it. He released debts owed to him by family members and provided stocks to finance the education of orphans as well as Washington and Lee University. Provisions of the will provided for funds to endow a national university, which, unfortunately, never came to pass.
He also insisted that his slaves be freed upon the death of his wife Martha. According to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, “Of the 317 slaves at Mount Vernon in 1799, 123 individuals were owned by George Washington and were stipulated in Washington’s will to be freed… However, these conditions did not apply to all slaves at Mount Vernon. When Martha Washington’s first husband Daniel Parke Custis died without a will, she received a life interest in one-third of his estate, including his slaves. The other two-thirds of the estate went to their children. Neither George nor Martha Washington could free these dower slaves by law. Upon her death the slaves would revert to the Custis estate and be divided among her grandchildren.”
Washington put his name at the bottom of all but one of the twenty-nine-page document, a practice which is still recommended today to be sure that pages aren’t substituted. Finally, Washington’s thoughtful and thorough Last Will and Testament even went so far as to include an arbitration clause in case any disagreement among his heirs regarding his testamentary intent should arise. It reads:
I hope, and trust, that no disputes will arise concerning them; but if, contrary to expectation, the case should be otherwise from the want of legal expression, or the usual technical terms, or because too much or too little has been said on any of the Devises to be consonant with law, My Will and direction expressly is, that all disputes (if unhappily any should arise) shall be decided by three impartial and intelligent men, known for their probity and good understanding; two to be chosen by the disputants—each having the choice of one—and the third by those two. Which three men thus chosen, shall, unfettered by Law, or legal constructions, declare their sense of the Testators intention; and such decision is, to all intents and purposes to be as binding on the Parties as if it had been given in the Supreme Court of the United States.
To view George Washington’s full Last Will and Testament for yourself, click here.