In Your Own Words: A Letter of Instruction Complements a Will

A smart estate plan should leave no doubt as to your intentions. Writing a letter of instruction can go a long way toward clearly communicating all of your thoughts and wishes. The letter, unlike a valid will, isn’t legally binding, but can be valuable to surviving family members.

The devil is in the details

Although the content can vary from person to person, one of the main purposes of a letter of instruction is to provide details on final wishes that haven’t been covered in the will. Think of the letter as a way to fill in some of the “gaps” or resolve matters left open to interpretation.

For example, the letter can detail vital financial information that has been omitted or glossed over in the will. Typically, this will include an inventory of real estate holdings, investment accounts, bank accounts, retirement plan accounts and IRAs, life insurance policies, and other financial assets.

Along with the account numbers, list the locations of the documents, such as a safe deposit box or file cabinet. And don’t forget to provide the contact information for your estate planning team. Typically, this will include your attorney, CPA, investment advisor and life insurance agent. These professionals can assist your family during the aftermath.

Content is up to you

There are no hard-and-fast rules for writing a letter of instruction. The basic elements are outlined above, but the choices are ultimately up to you. Remember that the letter isn’t legally binding, so there are no obligations to include any particular item. Conversely, you can say pretty much whatever else you want to say.

Your letter can go into as much or as little detail as you like. However, you’ll probably want to provide simplified guidelines for your loved ones to follow during an emotional time.

Rewrite if necessary

Completing the letter of instruction isn’t the end of the story. You may have to revisit it for rewrites or edits you didn’t accommodate before. For example, you could have neglected to specify certain accomplishments you want mentioned in an obituary.

In addition, it’s likely that some of your personal information will change over time, such as bank account numbers and passwords. Update the letter when warranted. Think of it as an ongoing process.

Finally, make sure that the letter is secured in a safe place. Any printed version should accompany your will or be located somewhere else that is accessible to trusted family members. At the same time, you must be able to update the letter whenever you need to.

Clarity counts

If you haven’t done so already, draft a letter of instruction and, most important, make sure that others know where and how to locate it. We can help fill in the blanks if you need help.

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