During the estate planning process, your attorney will draft a number of legal documents such as a will, trust and power of attorney which will help you accomplish your goals. While these legal documents are required for effective planning, they may not sufficiently convey your thoughts and wishes to your loved ones in your own words. A letter of instruction is a great compliment to your “formal” estate plan, allowing you to outline your wishes with your own voice.
This letter of instruction is typically written by you, not your attorney. Some attorneys may, however, provide you with forms or other documents that can be helpful in composing your letter of instruction. Whether your call this a "letter of instruction" or something else, such a document is a non-binding document that will be helpful to your family or other loved ones.
There is no set format as to what to include in this document, though there are a number of common themes.
First, you may wish to explain, in your own words, the reasoning for your personal preferences for medical care especially near the end of life. For example, you might explain why you prefer to pass on at home, if that is possible. Although this could be included in a medical power of attorney, learning about these wishes in a personalized letter as opposed to a sterile legal document may give your loved ones greater peace of mind that they are doing the right thing when they are charged with making decisions on your behalf. You might also detail your preferences regarding a funeral, burial or cremation. These letters often include a list of friends to contact upon your death and may even have an outline of your own obituary.
You may also want to make note of the following in your letter to your loved ones:
- an updated list of your financial accounts with account numbers;
- a list of online accounts with passwords;
- a list of important legal documents and where to find them;
- a list of your life insurance and where the actual policies are located;
- where you have any safe deposit boxes and the location of any keys;
- where all car titles are located; the
- names of your CPA, attorney, banker, insurance advisor and financial advisor;
- your birth certificate, marriage license and military discharge papers;
- your social security number and card;
- any divorce papers; copies of real estate deeds and mortgages;
- names, addresses, and phone numbers of all children, grandchildren, or other named beneficiaries.
In drafting your letter, you simply need to think about what information might be important to those that would be in charge of your affairs upon your death. This document should be consistent with your legal documents and updated from time to time.