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The “Un-Sung” Story of Hamilton’s Estate

Hamilton-mania has swept the nation over the last two, going on three, years. Finally, those in the greater Washington metro area can enjoy the show at the Kennedy Center, where the popular Broadway musical is running until mid-September. In case you’ve never heard of the show, it follows the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton, a true story of rags to riches-picking one’s self up by the bootstraps and achieving the American dream. Perhaps Hamilton is a founding father you’re not familiar with, a forgotten son of the colonies. He rose to prominence in early America, served as the right-hand man to George Washington in the Continental Army and later in the great General’s presidential cabinet. Tragically, this founding father’s life was cut short by a duel with political rival Aaron Burr. You’ll learn all this and more in the show, but what you might know is that two days before the duel Hamilton revised (or possibly wrote) his will.

I will now tell for you the untold story of what likely happened to the estate of Alexander Hamilton (his will is reproduced on the National Archives website here). Along the way you may learn a thing or two about your own Will and how you would like to plan your estate.

The first thing you may notice, if you’re a history buff or generally observant when reading a document, is the date of Hamilton’s Will: July 9, 1804 (1). The significance of this date is that the duel between Hamilton and Burr occurred on July 11, 1804. It is advisable to review your Will and other documents every few years and contact an attorney to go over any changes you may want to make. Life events that might prompt revision are: the birth of a child or grandchild, death of a beneficiary or executor, significant change in your assets, a change in your decision as to the distribution of your estate, or lastly, impending duels (these are highly illegal, however, and if you survive you will need to hire an attorney who specializes in criminal law).

There is some significance to whether Hamilton’s Will was his original Will or if it was a revised Will. It is required that if you are writing a new Will you must make a statement revoking all prior wills and codicils (supplements). It is also possible to take an action that marks your revocation (i.e. burning your prior will-if you’ve seen the show think of the song “burn”).

Second, you will see the appointment of a John Nicholas Fish and Nathaniel Pendleton as the executors of Hamilton’s Will. Pendleton was a trusted friend of Hamilton and a lawyer and he served as Hamilton’s second during his duel (2). Fish was a war friend of Hamilton’s who served in the New York Militia with him (3). You should always choose someone you trust as the executor of your Will. Your first choice is generally your spouse and your second choice may be an adult child or a sibling if your children are still minors. If you are not married, you should still choose someone trusted, such as a close friend or sibling. It is still important to write a Will if you are unwed or even if you have no heirs so that you can ensure that your property and possessions are distributed as you would like. You will notice in Hamilton’s Will that his wife, Elizabeth, is not listed as his executor. This is due to the legal status of women in early America. “Eliza” (as Mrs. Hamilton was known) was considered one in marriage with Alexander and lost legal status as an independent woman; this idea dated back to the writings of Blackstone (4). Although this legal status may have prevented Eliza from being the executor of Alexander’s estate, Eliza retained power over all property she brought to the marriage. Eliza was the son of a prominent General and a descendant of the wealthy Schuyler family. Any property which was brought to their marriage was still controlled by her family’s wishes and would pass to her heirs (5). This “dead-hand” control as it is referred to has been greatly reduced by modern law. It is important to discuss how your assets and properties will be distributed with an attorney.

Next, you will see the typical administration of an Estate. Alexander writes that his executors are to use funds to satisfy his creditors and any debts he may still owe. In the next paragraph, Alexander writes of having his assets sold to satisfy his creditors and that if there are insufficient funds to pay off remaining credits that his debt should pass to his children (6). Fortunately, this is another area in which the law has evolved. Unless you have co-signers on your loans and mortgages, if your estate cannot pay off these creditors these debts do not pass on to anyone, definitely not your children. Another founding father, Thomas Jefferson, left over $100,000 in debts for his daughter! You may be somewhat sympathetic of Mr. Jefferson; however, as $20,000 of this came from a friend whose notes Jefferson signed before the friend’s subsequent death (you’d think they would’ve found it relevant that the man guaranteeing the loan had significant unpaid loans?) (7).

Worth noting is the familiar pattern of distributions in the Will that any residuary funds should be given to Eliza. This language denotes an “outright gift” to Eliza. A common pattern of funds in a Will is that they pass directly to the spouse. If there are still funds after the passing of the spouse, the remainder usually passes in a trust for the children. The language of today’s trusts say that the trustee may use funds for the “health, education, maintenance and support” of the beneficiary of the trust. For minor children or others who are not trustees of their own trusts, this allows some guidance for when the Trustee should make distributions to the beneficiary. An allowance can also be made in the trust that allows beneficiaries to become trustees at a certain age (generally for minor children) or an age at which a beneficiary may make a partial withdrawal.

So what happened to the Hamilton Estate? Well, it was granted probate on July 16, 1804 (8) meaning that New York recognized it as the official Will of Hamilton. Just like today, it was signed and sealed by witnesses—a practice which confirms the validity of the document. Once granted probate it would have been administered according to what it stated. Unfortunately, Hamilton’s debts forced Eliza to sell their home, however, shortly after the sale, Eliza’s father died and left her a substantial inheritance. She was able to re-purchase their home and the estate of her father provided for her well-being (9). Now that you’ve read the story of the Estate of the Hamilton, it may be time to take out your documents (they should always be kept somewhere safe) and review them. Hopefully it won’t take an upcoming duel to remind you that they need occasional revision!

By: Will Gibson, Summer Intern at Vogelman, Turner & Wright P.C.

 


  1. “Today in History: July 11”. Library of Congress. Retrieved July 24, 2018
  2. http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=P000207
  3. http://www.grandriveruel.ca/Newsletter_Reprints/Yorktown_Painting.htm
  4. http://ap.gilderlehrman.org/essay/legal-status-women-1776%C3%A2%E2%82%AC%E2%80%9C1830
  5. Id.
  6. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-26-02-0001-0259
  7. http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2015/07/02/history/post-perspective/the-debt-and-death-of-thomas-jefferson-2.html
  8. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-26-02-0001-0259
  9. https://web.archive.org/web/20150914213035/http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/albany/bios/s/esh.html

 

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