West Seattle residents Peter Petrasek and his wife, Joan, willed their entire estate to “the United States of America.”
Americans often go to great lengths to keep the government off their assets.
But last month, as Peter and Joan Petrasek had wished in their wills, a cashier’s check for $847,215.57 was made out to the Department of Treasury.
The Petraseks had left their total accumulated wealth, of cash in the bank and sale of their West Seattle home, “to the government of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.”
What could the money buy?
Peter and Joan Petrasek’s $847,215.57 they willed to the U.S. government, which will go into the Treasury’s general fund, could pay for:
Two-thirds of oneTomahawk cruise missile
A year’s salary for about 6 ½ managerial publicity flaks
A year’s salary for about 10 ½ entry-level Veterans Affairs nurses
284,000 federal free school lunches
Sources: Departments of Defense and Agriculture, FedsDataCenter.com, U.S. Senate
The Petraseks had no children.
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Why the unusual will? Why not a charity or some cause?
That’s a sizable chunk of change, although that sum would have accounted for just 7.63 seconds of spending in last year’s $3.5 trillion U.S. budget.
The will had no more specifics, and no next of kin could be found.
Ron Wright, a next-door neighbor who knew the couple for 30 years, provided some background. But he was surprised at the will and its one sentence bequeathing it all to the government.
Peter Petrasek had only told him, “It’ll all be taken care of.”
He died on May 5, 2012, at age 85. His heart gave out while he was alone in his home. He was found after another neighbor called police when she noticed a package delivered to his front door had been untouched for a while.
Joan Petrasek had predeceased him by 13 years. She died at age 79 of breast cancer.
It took three years to have their estate sorted out; the house emptied, their 1977 Ford Granada, gun collection, and items such as their collection of paintings evaluated and sold.
Want to give money to the U.S. government?
Here are three ways other than gifting it in your will:
• The “Conscience Fund.”
This is for people who feel guilty about cheating the government and want to make restitution.
A New York Times story tells of one contributor sending money for two postal stamps he reused. A man sent $1,300 for “tools, leave days and other things I stole while I was in the Navy.”
The Department of Treasury says that in 2014, the account took in $12.4 million. In 2013 it was $6.9 million. In 2011 it was $3.3 million.
The spokesman didn’t know why Americans are feeling more guilty these days.
• A special account for reducing the public debt.
In 2014, it took in $5.1 million. In 2013, $1.8 million. In 2012, $7.7 million.
Again, the agency can’t explain the variances.
• Make a payment directly to a government program, from researching marine mammals to a scholarship fund.
Carrie Balkema is the Seattle attorney who ended up administering the Petrasek estate.
She lays out the bits and pieces of old paperwork that were found in various drawers in the Petraseks’ house. The papers perhaps fill a third of a file box.
“When you’re alive, you put your life on a one-page résumé,” she says. “In death, it all gets put in one box.”
Here is a creased document with an official-looking stamp with a lion and the words, “Ceskoslovenska Republika.” It is a school report card.
Peter Petrasek was born Vlastimil Petrasek in Prague, Czechoslovakia.
He would have been 12 when the Nazis invaded the country.
“From what he told me, all their property was confiscated,” remembers Wright. “The Germans hauled off his father to a camp.”
What else did Petrasek say about his past?
That his mom was left in Prague. It’s unknown whether he was ever in contact with her after that.
Petrasek told Wright of a sister who ended up doing forced factory work in Dresden. He said the sister died in the Allied firestorm bombing of the city.
Petrasek said that he himself was placed in some kind of camp for youths that was associated with the Luftwaffe, the German air force.
The Nazis did have luftwaffenhelfers, child soldiers. Whatever Petrasek was doing at that young age, he learned how to fly.
Wright tells of Petrasek describing being in a plane that was shot down, surviving and hiking into Switzerland.
Another piece of paper is from January 1949, from the “Control Center Officer” at a refugee center at an airfield in the U.S. Zone at Ludwigsburg, Germany. It certifies that Petrasek meets the criteria for being classified a refugee.
Here’s another letter, from the National Union of Czechoslovak Students in Exile, attesting he escaped that country “for political reasons.” By then, the Communists had taken over in a coup d’état.
The Petraseks would come over to Wright’s home for Christmas. The neighbors had a common interest in gardening. Wright and Peter would go chanterelle mushroom hunting. A couple of times, Peter took him up flying in a small plane.
But you know how it is.
You live next door to a neighbor for years, and you chat, and socialize, but in the end know just a few details about their history.
Here is another piece of paper, from July 1951.
It’s a certificate of marriage from St. Joseph’s Rectory in Ottawa.
That was where Peter and Joan married. Peter had ended up in that city after the war, and met Joan.
He was then 25; she was 32.
There are other pieces of paper. Here is a letter of recommendation from a pulp-and-paper mill in Quebec, where Peter began working as a laborer and moved up to the technical department.
“Intelligent, conscientious and cooperative,” wrote his boss in 1954.
Within a few years, though, the couple decided to move to Seattle, after Peter researched regions where the couple would like to live, says Wright.
Peter found work at Bethlehem Steel as a metallurgist, says Wright.
Joan, according to union membership cards, worked first as a meat cutter, then as an upholsterer.
They were a thrifty couple.
Wright recalls their taking only one out-of-state vacation, to Hawaii, in the time he knew them.
It’s not uncommon for those who’ve known hard times, the refugees, to be oh-so-careful about money.
In 1958, the couple paid $15,000 for a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home on Southwest Kenyon Street. They must have saved half of that sum as down payment, as the mortgage loan is for only half the amount.
Wright doesn’t remember Peter ever having oil delivered for the home’s furnace.
After his death, gallon containers full of recycled oil were found under tarps in Petrasek’s backyard.
Wright helped sort through the home’s contents.
“He was a pack rat,” says Wright. “Papers, books, dictionaries. He had a huge record collection, hundreds, all symphonies.”
In a drawer, Wright found a bank statement, which led to a safe-deposit box, which contained the will.
Peter Winn, the assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle who worked on accepting the estate monies, has an idea about the Petraseks’ decision:
“As a refugee from World War II, he was very grateful to his adopted country. He grew up with a lot of people in Eastern Europe who would have been happy to change places with him.
“There are still a lot of people in the world who would envy him the life he lived. He wanted to make a statement about how much it meant to him to be an American citizen.”
To settle the estate, the home was sold in October 2013 for $241,000. It was then worked on for a bit, and two months later the new homeowner flipped it for $420,000.
After all expenses were tallied, from $150 to drill the safe deposit box, to some $15,000 for Balkema’s fees, the cashier’s check was made — the sale of the home, plus $678,459.84 cash.
The U.S. Treasury says the Petrasek money will go into the general fund.
A spokesman for the Treasury says it doesn’t specifically track how many people have willed their estates to the government.
But it happens, with the most famous such person being Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who died in 1935.
In his will, money was left to his maid, driver, cook and other individuals, with what appears to be the major portion willed to the government. It is Holmes who famously said, “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.’’
The Petraseks liked to ski at Crystal Mountain.
After Joan died, Peter had no services for her. She was cremated. Joan had talked about having her ashes spread at Crystal.
After Peter died, he also was cremated, and Wright picked up the cardboard box containing the ashes.
He still has the box. He thinks maybe this summer he’ll spread them at the mountain.
There’s no hurry.
Who else would know?