Lincoln died without a will and a Supreme Court Justice handled probate

It’s not everyone who can call on a Justice of the Supreme Court to handle probate for an intestate estate, but that’s just what Abraham Lincoln’s family had to do when he died. It’s true that Lincoln died unexpectedly, but considering his position, he must have known that his family would have been well served by an estate plan.

Yet Lincoln died without a will — and that can mean additional confusion and expense in probate, for those without dear family friends who happen to be Supreme Court Justices. Luckily, none of Lincoln’s heirs and beneficiaries disputed the results of Justice David Davis’s estate administration, and Lincoln didn’t have any creditors. He died only $38.31 in debt.

A detailed account of that historical probate is available at the University of Michigan Library. It reveals that Davis estimated Lincoln’s estate to be worth $85,000 in his initial filing. Since the Consumer Price Index only goes back to 1913, it’s hard to estimate how much $85,000 is worth in today’s money, but was likely to be in the millions.

Under Illinois law at the time, the estate was to be divided equally between Mary Todd Lincoln and Lincoln’s two living children, Robert and Thomas. Although many people assume that if they die without a will their money will pass directly to their spouse, that wasn’t true in 1965 Illinois, and it’s not true in many states today.

When probate was complete in 1867, Justice Davis and the court ultimately found the value of the estate to be $110,296.80. Outside of probate and tax free, Congress voted to give Mary Todd Lincoln nearly $25,000, or roughly one year’s salary for the President. Mary could have received another cash benefit as Lincoln’s widow, but she declined.

Perhaps most surprising, Justice Davis declined all payment for his services as the administrator of Lincoln’s estate — even reimbursement for expenses. He handled it by himself while still sitting as a Justice and turned down the customary fee of $6,600.

So, do you have a will or estate plan? If not, do you have a Supreme Court Justice handy to manage probate for your family? Do you know how your estate will be distributed in probate if you die without a will, or are you leaving it to chance?

It is estimated that half to two-thirds of American adults do not have a will, much less an effective estate plan that could prevent disputes in probate — or avoid probate entirely.

Abraham Lincoln had a lot on his plate, and he wasn’t expecting to die soon. Sound familiar?

Source: Forbes, “Are You Better Prepared Than Abraham Lincoln Was?” Danielle and Andy Mayoras, Dec. 4, 2012

FindLaw Network