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Letters of Instruction in Estate Planning

A good friend and client pointed out to me that I had not done a column on lettres of instruction.  So, this week, that is the topic I will cover.


A comprehensive estate plan often includes writing a Last Will and Testament to transfer your assets to your beneficiaries.  Once you’ve passed away, the executor of your Will shepherds the Will through the probate process.  However, you may have things you’d like to communicate to your loved ones and beneficiaries that you don’t want to include in the Will itself. Often, these are informal instructions that will help your executor carry out your wishes. It might also include such informal elements as opinions about your funeral, the values you’d like to be remembered for or just a sentimental message to loved ones.


Sometimes known as a letter of intent, a letter of instruction is a document that provides specific information regarding your preferences on anything from medical care to your funeral to the distribution of your assets and property.  A letter of instruction isn’t legally binding in any way, unlike a Will.  Rather, it’s meant to be something of a crib sheet for the executor of your Will or your loved ones. You can use plain English to communicate anything you want regarding the management of your affairs.


Because there is no legal aspect to this document, you are free to also include messages to your family if you wish, and you can touch on matters that you may not be able to include in something like a Will or an advance directive.


What Should You Include in Your Letter of Instruction?

What you decide to include in your letter of instruction is completely up to you.  There’s no one piece of information that will qualify or disqualify your letter.  Your attorney should provide you with guidance in this matter and may even have a form.  That said, there are a handful of things that will make your executor’s life easier when she’s working to probate your estate. This information includes:


  • A list of all your assets;


  • The location of any assets that may not be readily accessible;
  • All of your account information, including passwords, PIN numbers and account numbers, for any bank accounts or retirement accounts you have;
  • Contact information for anyone who helps you with your finances, including attorneys, brokers, bankers and financial advisors;
  • Informal directions about how you would like the executor to disperse some of your assets, typically heirlooms or other sentimental possessions;
  • If you’d prefer people to make donations in lieu of flowers at your funeral, information about which charities you prefer;
  • Where your executor can find your most recent tax returns, Social Security statements, birth certificate and other important documents;
  • Similarly, where your executor can find any real estate titles/deeds or oil and gas leases, etc.;
  • Your Social Security number;
  • Any divorce and/or citizenship papers, or applications thereof;
  • Contact information of any creditors (mortgage, car, etc.) and any insurance companies, particularly if you have a life insurance policy;
  • If you have pets who will need a home, where you would like your executor to send them.


From there, you can include any messages or additional preferences that come to you. Some people choose to include a preference for burial or cremation. You might even mention which songs you’d like played at the funeral.


Letter of Instruction vs. Last Will

Although a letter of instruction and a Last Will discuss similar topics, they are distinct documents with several differences. First and foremost, a letter of instruction isn’t a legal document, while a Will has legal force. State law requires that your executor or administrator follow the terms of your Will, whereas no one is required to follow your letter of instruction. In order to prevent any potential conflict as to whether your letter of instruction is a testamentary document or not, you should let you estate planning attorney provide guidance.


Because of this distinction, a letter of instruction can be much more flexible. You’re essentially just writing a message to an executor or a loved one with helpful information. This is why you can choose to include anything you want.


You can also use plain language in a letter of instruction. A Last Will is written in a more formal style. This is because each state and even some counties have regulations dictating the format of a Will.  If you don’t meet those regulations, then your Will may not be enforceable.  Since your letter of instruction would never be enforceable in the first place, you don’t have to worry about adhering to anyone else’s formatting.


A letter of instruction can’t take the place of a Last Will.  If you pass away without a Will, a court-appointed administrator will distribute your possessions according to state and county law rather than your letter.


While it can’t serve as a substitute for a Last Will, a letter of instruction can be extremely helpful to your loved ones.  You can spell your wishes out in simple terms, and you can leave them a final message without the formality that comes with a legal document.


With a letter of instruction, you can impart any miscellaneous preference, message or set of values that you hadn’t done anywhere else.  That way, you can feel confident that your estate planning strategy is airtight.

It is very important to have an estate planning attorney help draft your estate planning documents, and provide guidance with letters of instruction.  It is money well spent to avoid expensive conflicts later.

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