If you want your family to have an easier time knowing whom to call and how to find important information about you when you aren’t able to tell them, you’ll want to prepare a letter of instruction. Preparing this document can also help you avoid family squabbles over who gets your favorite painting or Aunt Margaret’s purple vase.
Of course, you need a will that directs how you want your major property distributed and names an executor to close out your estate. A letter of instruction doesn’t have the legal effect of a will and isn’t a substitute for it. Think of it as a flexible, informal supplement to your will that covers more personal information than what is included in your will. You don’t need a lawyer to draft a letter of instruction, and you can easily change it as your circumstances or wishes change.
Part I: Funeral Wishes
Your letter should have three parts that do three different things. The first part helps your family know whom to contact and how to find all that information that will be necessary to plan your funeral. It might include names and phone numbers of special people whom you wish to be told that you have died. You could include instructions about the type of funeral or memorial service you want, who should officiate, who you want as pallbearers, or what songs should be sung.
If you have contracted for any of your funeral arrangements, you need to let your family know about your plans with the funeral home and whether or not you have already paid for any of the arrangements. Describe the location of your prepurchased burial plot or crypt and where you keep the plot deed. Or, if you want to be cremated, where you want your ashes placed.
If you have a favorite charity to receive donations in your honor, say so in your letter. If you have designated yourself an organ or tissue donor, identify the recipient organization and phone number to contact so that the necessary arrangements can be made promptly. Explain your wishes and reasons for or against an autopsy. You might even draft your obituary in advance so your family can have something to publish in a newspaper.
Part II: Financial Details
Your family or estate administrator also needs to know the facts about your finances. You could include the names and phone numbers of your employer, attorney, financial planner, insurance agent, or stock broker. A list of your pension plan, bank, brokerage, or retirement accounts will help your administrator know where to look for assets for your beneficiaries.
Include instructions on how to get in touch with any beneficiaries to your accounts. To make your administrator’s job easier, explain where you have located your important documents, such as your Social Security statement, birth certificate, will, trust, deeds, life insurance policies, income tax returns, citizenship papers, marriage license, divorce decree, or military discharge papers. You also should include information about any debts, such as your mortgage, credit card accounts, or car loans.