What Is a Letter of Instruction and Why Do You Need One
- A letter of instruction informs your family of your wishes after your death. Find out what a letter of instruction is and discover why you might need one.
A letter of instruction lets your family and loved ones know your final wishes beyond the cold legal language of a will. While it holds no legal weight and doesn't supercede the will, a letter of intent provides more context and explanation for final decisions. It can also straighten out minor affairs that wouldn't be appropriate to include in the legal framework of a will.
Also known as a letter of intent, a letter of instruction can include an emotional component that might resonate with those who read it.
What Should Be in a Letter of Instruction?
At its most practical level, a letter of instruction explains where family members and the executor can locate physical items. It may also include non-tangible items such as contact information for individuals and businesses that loved ones may need to get in touch with.
The following are some of the most important things to include in your letter of instruction:
- A complete list of assets, including bank, investment, brokerage and retirement accounts and any login information (usernames, passwords, PINs) needed to access these accounts
- The location of any assets that aren't readily apparent
- Contact information for lawyers, bankers and anyone else involved with the handling of affairs
- The physical location of documents and records that an executor might need, including titles and deeds, birth certificates, tax returns and Social Security statements
- Where keys for safe deposit boxes are located
- How family heirlooms and anything of sentimental value should be distributed among family and friends
- Information about insurance policies, especially if there's a life insurance policy that will pay out to beneficiaries
- Desires for how pets should be cared for
- A list of debtors (credit card companies, automobile loans, mortgages and any loans)
What Personal Desires Should Be Listed in a Letter of Instruction?
Many people choose to include personal and emotional content in their letter of instruction. It can be used to direct personal desires, such as wishes for the funeral, including its location and the music to be played. If the person was cremated, the letter of instruction could also communicate where they want their ashes spread and the type of ceremony they'd prefer.
The letter of instruction may include an "ethical will," which lays out the person's values and beliefs to loved ones. It can explain the person's philosophy on life and communicate love and appreciation for the family they're leaving behind. This part of the letter of instruction can also include how the person wants their heirs to spend their inheritance, such as on a vacation to a cherished family spot or a down payment on a house. While none of that direction is legally binding, it communicates the hopes of the person writing the letter.
Ultimately, the letter of instruction should communicate whatever the person wishes to say to their loved ones. Its primary importance is helping with the practical matters of executing an estate, but it should also communicate love and warmth and a final accounting of affairs to beneficiaries. And, of course, it should be kept in a safe place where loved ones can find it.