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Probate Case Study: President Abraham Lincoln
Did Our 16th President Die With or Without a Will?

     Prior to his election as our 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln had a long and distinguished career as a lawyer in private practice in Illinois handling a wide variety of cases. He was also the father of four boys (Robert Todd Lincoln, Edward Lincoln, Willie Lincoln and Tad Lincoln), devoted husband to his wife Mary Todd Lincoln and the sole income producing member of the family. Both Edward and Willie predeceased their father. One would think, under these circumstances, that the President would have executed a Will providing for the proper and orderly disposition of his assets upon death.

     President Lincoln died without a Will. His son, Robert Todd Lincoln, wrote to David Davis, Justice of the United States Supreme Court and Lincoln long time confidant, on the date of his father’s death (April 15, 1865) to: “Please come at once to Washington & take charge of my father’s affairs.” After searching for a Will and none being found, Mrs. Lincoln and her son Robert wrote to the Judge of the Sangamon County Court in Illinois asking that Letters of Administration be granted to Judge Davis.

     On June 14, 1865, Judge Davis petitioned the same Court via an affidavit of the “decease of Abraham Lincoln on or about the 14th day of April, A.D., 1865, intestate as it is said and that his Estate will probably amount to the sum of $85,000.00; that said Abraham Lincoln left at the time of his decease, Mary Lincoln, his widow, and Robert T. Lincoln and Thomas Lincoln his children.”

     In response, the County Court issued letters of administration to Judge Davis, who took an oath to “well and truly administer the estate,” and signed an administrator’s bond for $160,000.00 with Lincoln’s first law partner in private practice, John T. Stewart, serving as surety on the bond.

     The law of Illinois at the time provided that Mrs. Lincoln was entitled to one-third of the personal property and a widow’s award which represented an allowance of chattels and a sum of money to allow her to maintain herself and her children for a period of one year. No record of the award is found in the estate accounting although she did receive the chattels as required.

     Davis proceeded to marshal the assets of the estate and open estate accounts to deposit all remaining unpaid salary from Mr. Lincoln’s presidency, collect outstanding debts, close various bank accounts and consolidate the amounts in one estate account. From the estate account, Judge Davis could further handle all necessary payments required to be made by the Estate. In January, 1866, the Treasurer of the United States paid Davis, as Administrator of the Estate, the amount of $847.83 representing the salary of the President for the period between April 4-15, 1865.

     Davis further gave public notice to all potential creditors through publication in Springfield, Illinois for all persons having claims against the Estate to present them for adjustment. The only claim filed was one for $11.00 to Allen N. Ford for a four year subscription to the Illinois Gazette which the President was receiving at the time of his death.

     Judge Davis further compiled an extensive and detailed accounting of is activities on behalf of the Estate including all assets, income and debts of the Estate. President Lincoln’s Estate had a net worth of $110,296.80 exclusive of his real estate holdings. This amount was divided equally among the heirs: Mary Lincoln, Robert Todd Lincoln and Thomas Lincoln. Each received $36,765.60. Judge Davis filed his report as Administrator of the Estate on November 13, 1868 just one year after distribution and the report was approved by the Court on December 11, 1868.

     In appreciation, Mary Lincoln wrote Judge Davis on November 18, 1866: “Permit me to say, that in no hands save your own, could our interests have been so advantageously placed. Please accept my grateful thanks for all your kindness to myself and my family.”

 

 

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Copyright © 2000/2011 by New Jersey Attorney, John F. Renner. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of all or any part of this document, without prior permission of John F. Renner, Esq. is expressly prohibited.