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  • Writer's pictureJenny Rozelle, Host of Legal Tea

Celebrity Estate Planning - Susan Buffett - Episode 135


Hey there, Legal Tea Listeners! This is your host, Jenny Rozelle. We’re back to the “celebrity estate planning” topic and for today’s episode, we’re going to dive into what happened following the death of Susan Buffett – the last name should ring a bell for you. Buffett. As in Warren Buffett. Well Susan Buffett was Warren’s first wife and they were married for a long time, which we’ll get into, and married until she died in 2004. So, as we always do on celebrity estate planning episodes, let’s get into Susan, personally-speaking, to gain a better understanding of her as a person (and those closest to her), then we’ll transition into her estate plan and what specifically happened after her death.

Hailing from Nebraska, Susan was born in 1932, according to her Wikipedia page. Ironically, her father, William Thompson, was a one-time campaign manager for Howard Buffett, which is Warren Buffett’s father. So, there was a link between Warren and Susan starting significantly before they more officially met while at Northwestern University through Warren’s sister, Roberta. The link between Warren and Susan must have been so strong because they ended up getting married in 1952, all according to Wikipedia. Together, they ended up having three children – Susan Alice Buffett (her daughter) born in 1953, Howard Graham Buffett born in 1954, and Peter Andrew Buffett born in 1958.

To talk about Warren and Susan’s marriage is a bit of a … puzzle. I’m sure you’re like, “What does that mean?” Well, there are a lot of rumors out there about how exactly faithful they both were to each other, but what’s not a rumor is that Susan introduced Warren to a lady by the name of Astrid Menks in 1978 – and Astrid later became Warren’s second and current wife after Susan died. About this same time (in 1977-1978ish), it was said that Susan and Warren, while they remained married, started living fairly separate lives – including not even living together. According to Wikipedia, “the Buffetts attended public functions as husband and wife though they had not lived together for more than half their marriage.” Even more interesting, and perhaps to some a little strange, Warren and Susan were said to have sent Christmas cards and signed as “Warren, Susan, and Astrid.” That really makes me … a bit confused. To each their own, I suppose!

And just a little but more about Susan – According to Wikipedia, Susan was well-known for her activism for causes such as civil rights, abortion rights, and birth control. She was also a Director of Berkshire Hathaway owning 2.2% of the company – which was valued at around $3 Billion Dollars, Billion with a B, at the time of her death. That, as well as her other assets, made her, at that time, the 153rd richest person in the world. Wow! And lastly, Susan was also the President of the Buffett Foundation, which was later-named the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, which was a charitable organization to manage her and Warren’s charitable giving efforts.

Well, shifting to Susan’s final years, specifically to 2003, Susan was diagnosed with oral cancer. She attempted surgery and radiation, and even through her battle and recovery, Warren would fly to Nebraska to be with her. According to Wikipedia, he later donated $6 Million Dollars to five specific California doctors for oral cancer research. Susan ended up having a successful recovery – until 2004, when she suffered a stroke which is what caused her death. She was 72 at the time of her death. According to Wikipedia, “Warren was so grief-stricken that he did not attend [Susan’s funeral].”

After her passing, an estate plan was confirmed. Thank goodness – since at that time, she was the 153rd richest person in the world. I’m glad someone with that type of wealth prioritized estate planning! I say that because all of my faithful Legal Tea Listeners know we’ve talked about A LOT of celebrities on these types of episodes and so many (TOO MANY!) fail to do estate planning. So, good job, Susan! So, what did her estate plan do … what did it say?

According to Philanthropy News Outlet, a significant portion of Susan’s Estate went to the Buffett Foundation, or like I said, later named as the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation. Her Estate’s likely-biggest asset, her ownership percentage in Berkshire Hathaway, was valued at around $3 Billion at her death. From 2004ish (the year she passed) through 2006ish, the shares of the Berkshire Hathaway stock was sold – and those proceeds were utilized to pay estate taxes, pay for other estate-related expenses, and to fulfill some cash bequests to her children and grandchildren. According to Wikipedia, those cash bequests were to the tune of about $10 Million to each of her three children and $100,000 to each of her grandchildren. Additionally, it was reported that there were cash gifts given to friends and long-time employees – like, $8 Million to John McCabe, her former tennis coach and $1 Million to Ron Parks. (Note: I couldn’t find who Ron Parks was to her.)

You may be thinking, “Wow – someone with that type of wealth. She only left $10 Million to each child and $100,000 to each grandchild?” Well, not so fast – because additional shares of the Berkshire Hathaway stock was sold and those funds (which was approximately $150 Million Dollars) was split equally (so $50 Million each) to each of her children’s private foundation, which were established by Warren and Susan (for each kid). Further, I’m sure with the type of wealth the Buffetts have and had, they have probably been encouraged to do lifetime gifting (for estate tax planning purposes) and/or trust planning (also for estate tax planning) for their children, which would be settled privately and NOT of public nature. So, that’s me speculating a bit – but I’m sure with their type of mega wealth, Susan’s kids were probably financially supported in other means – beyond what is publicly known.

Lastly, really everything else, went to the Buffet’s Foundation – which was still in the billions (with a B). Interestingly, some time after Susan’s death, Warren has said that he plans to leave his Berkshire Hathaway stock, which in 2004 when Susan died was valued at around $40 Billion Dollars, also to the Buffett Foundation (not the Susan Thompson Buffet Foundation). That is according to the Philanthropy News Outlet piece written in 2004 – so who only knows what the value of the stock is nowadays, right? On this, too, Warren, of course, is still living, so perhaps since 2004, his mind has changed or not. We’ll just have to see what happens after Warren dies to see if he follows through with that notion. If he doss, the Philanthropy News Outlet said it would make the Foundation the largest Foundation in the United States.

So, that’s basically what we know about Susan Buffett’s Estate – now, let’s briefly talk about a few things that we can talk about, maybe that we can learn from her Estate and apply it to all of us, even though we’re not billionaires! First, I want to talk about estate taxes – I did an episode (it was episode number 116) on estate taxes – and specifically, how at the turn of the 2025-2026 calendar year, the estate tax threshold is set to reduce. Without further action from Congress, the federal estate tax exclusion amount will go back to pre-Tax Cuts and Job Act, but yet adjusted for inflation, which depending on the source, would take us to somewhere between $6-7 Million Per Person (so somewhere $12-14 Million as a married couple). Now, if these numbers are applicable to your estate, you should definitely be talking to your estate planning attorney to see if there’s anything you should be doing prior to 2026 to maximize estate tax planning.

Another thing we can learn from and talk about following Susan Buffett’s Estate episode is generally speaking what estate planning allows you to do – and that’s that you get to be in the driver’s seat of YOUR plan. So, you know/remember how Susan had the cash gifts go to her children and grandchildren, and some friends – those are often what are called specific bequests. Specific bequests are things that you want to happen very specifically. So, the beautiful thing that Susan did and that YOU can do – is think of an estate plan as a blank canvas. Whatever you want to have happen, someone like me, an estate attorney, can usually make happen. The sky is the limit! If someone wants to be extremely custom or specific, let’s do it – someone like me can walk you through HOW to get it done, the pros/cons about what you’re trying to do, etc. When you don’t do an estate plan, you basically are in the trunk. You’re not even in the passenger seat...not even a backseat driver. You basically don’t have much of a say at all. So do your darn estate plan, friends!

Lastly, I think another focus of Susan’s estate plan and what you could apply in your estate plan is charitable giving. Now, transparently, most of my clients want things to go to their kids, their family, their beneficiaries – and don’t really do much charitable giving through their estate plan. Though, I think sometimes that term of art, charitable giving, feels bigger than what it is. You could, in your estate plan, leave an organization $500, $1000, you know something small … and you’re technically doing charitable giving. My husband and I, in our estate plan, have some gifts to some organization that are near and dear to us – and they’re not massive. They’re not substantial. So, if you want to leave something, even if it feels small, to an organization that means a lot to you – you should absolutely do it.

Alrighty, I think we’re ready to wrap this episode up. Next week we’re back to a “cautionary tale” episode where we talk about real-life clients, real-life cases that I, or my office, have worked on -or- maybe they are just generally good things to know/be aware of so you don’t slip up and turn into a cautionary tale one day. Always good stuff on those episodes! I usually give a little sneak peak for next week’s specific topic, but I really haven’t figured out what I’m talking about yet, so I guess it’ll just have to be a surprise! So, tune in for I guess the surprise next week. Until then, take care and be well!

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