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State Your Intentions With a Letter of Instruction

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.

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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.

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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.

You’ll want to include as much detail as possible. For example, if something is in your safe deposit box, tell what bank, the box number, and where the key is located. If you have important documents on your computer, what are the file names or passwords? A detailed letter will save your administrator a lot of time and trouble—and reduce fees that the accountant or attorney may charge your estate. This means more money for your family.

Part III: Personal Effects

The third part of your letter helps eliminate family feuds over the relatives and friends you want to have your personal items. We all have heard stories of family fights erupting over how to divide family pictures, necklaces, the stamp collection, or the wedding gift from Uncle Bill. The items may not have monetary value, but getting them to the right person can make a big difference to you—and to them. If you want to make sure that your granddaughter gets the pearl necklace you got for your high school graduation, or you have already promised your best friend that she gets your figurine collection, put your wishes in your letter. Be sure to leave instructions about care for your pets.

Make it personal, too. You can use your letter to send important messages to your survivors. You might include special hopes you have for your grandchildren’s education, or the important values you want to pass on. This could be the place you tell them something you never got around to saying. It can be whatever you want it to be.

You’ll want to write your letter to the person most likely to take over your accounts if you become unable to manage your own financial affairs or after you die. This could be your spouse, adult child or other relative, your attorney, or the person you have selected to administer your estate.

Your wishes can change over time. It is easy to revisit your instructions every couple of years or when your circumstances change. You don’t have to follow any legal format. The letter can be handwritten or on your computer. Always sign and date each revision to eliminate confusion over which is your most current statement.

You’ll want to make several copies. Keep one with your will and another in a place your family would look first. Don’t keep the document a secret! And don’t put it in your safe deposit box, where it might be difficult to reach.

Those who come after you will be thankful for your thoughtfulness and foresight in preparing the letter of instruction. You will ease the stress of your loved ones at a difficult time, make sure that nothing is “lost,” and give yourself peace of mind that your wishes are known.

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