Great Advice from Ben Franklin on Preparing a Will

June 13, 2017 | Posted by Joe Russo

During your lifetime, you may work 40 years to accumulate assets and spend 10 to 20 years conserving that accumulation. Through good planning, another wonderful chapter in the book of your life can be completed. A proper estate plan will help give you peace of mind as you provide for those you love and protect both you and your family.

But who should receive your property?

  • Should you give the property to your children outright or in trust?
  • Is there a best age for them to receive the property?
  • What if one of them were to pass away before you do?
  • Are the grandchildren too young to manage the property?
  • Should you forgive loans you’ve given to your children?
  • What about your pets? Who will take care of them?

There are so many decisions to make.

Beneficiaries of your will

The first question you should answer is who will be the beneficiary of your will. You might have several different types of beneficiaries.

  • Primary beneficiaries
  • Contingent beneficiaries
  • Life estate and remainder recipients
  • Minors who receive income from a trust
  • Debtor beneficiaries who receive forgiveness and restricted beneficiaries

Benjamin Franklin included all of these types of gifts in his will. Let’s use his will as an example of what you could do.

Primary beneficiaries

Ben Franklin gave his son William all of his property in Nova Scotia “to hold to him, his heirs and designs forever.” Because William received the property outright, he was a primary beneficiary.

You might own specific property such as land, a home or a family heirloom that you want to be transferred to a primary beneficiary.

This is often the starting point for planning your estate distributions.

Life estate

Franklin owned three homes on Market Street in Philadelphia, other property within Philadelphia and pasture land on Hickory Lane next to the city. He transferred the right to use that property together with his “silver plate, pictures and household goods” to his daughter Sarah Bache and her husband Richard Bache for use “during their natural lives.”

This bequest created a life estate. You may have a home or other real property and desire for a person to use that property for his or her lifetime. A life estate is an excellent way to give a person life use of the property.

Final beneficiary

After the lives of Sarah and Richard Bache, the property in Philadelphia that they used was transferred to their children. This property was then solely owned by the children.

Following a life estate, the property is usually transferred outright to the remainder or final beneficiaries. If you create a life estate for a person, then you may also designate a person or perhaps a charitable organization to own the property after your life tenant passes away.

Contingent beneficiary

Ben Franklin wanted to transfer property to his daughter and son-in-law for life, with the final distribution to their children. But what if one of the children were to pass away prior to the demise of both parents? Franklin indicated that if one of the children were “to die under age, and without issue,” that share would be “equally divided among the survivors.”

A contingent beneficiary is the person who will receive the property if the first person is not living at the time of the transfer. For example, you may wish to give a gift through your will to a brother or sister. But if he or she passes away before you do, then it is important to select another person to receive the property.

Trust for minors

Ben Franklin understood that some of the children of his daughter Sarah might be quite young at the time when both parents pass away. He stated that some of them are “under age” and “may not have capacity” to manage the property. Therefore, he ordered the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania to select “three honest, intelligent, impartial men” to manage the property.

If you plan to assist young children, you will want to create a trust to manage property for the benefit of the children. Primarily, the trust will distribute income and, if needed, principal to the child until each recipient reaches your designated age for distribution of the assets.

Debtor beneficiaries

Ben Franklin was like many parents in that he made loans to his children. As is quite often the case, he decided to forgive the loans and indicated he would discharge his son-in-law “from all claim and rent of moneys due to me.”

If you have made loans to friends or family members, it is very possible that you may choose to forgive those loans. In effect, you are forgiving the debt and giving back the note or other obligation.

Pet beneficiaries

Ben Franklin gave away his printing materials and books and left several other bequests. However, it appears that he decided not to make any provision for a pet.

During the past few years, more than half of the state legislatures in the United States have permitted a plan to benefit a pet. The simple solution is for you to transfer a family pet to a friend and make a gift of sufficient funds to provide for the care of the animal. Of course, you are trusting your friend to provide that care and to use the funds appropriately.

Some states also allow you to create a pet trust. A trust can be managed by a bank or a commercial trustee, or you can select a private trustee. The property that is transferred to the trust will be used for the care of your pet.

Want to learn more about creating an estate plan? Download our Legacy Guide: Planning Your Will and Trust. Or call our Gift Planning Services team at 800-843-5233 or email to

Joe Russo