While your will is an extremely important document for estate planning, it can be less useful on its own than you may think. A letter of instruction is a separate document meant to make your wishes clearly understood and take some of the pressure off your family as they are grieving your loss.
Although a letter of instruction isn’t legally binding, you may still want to write one with the help of an attorney after drafting your official will. This document serves two main purposes: providing practical details to assist in settling your estate and offering insight into the legacy you wish to leave for your loved ones.
Important Details to Put in Your Letter of Instruction
The letter of instruction serves as an excellent means to provide information that an executor will likely need but can’t usually find directly in your will. In particular, the letter should include a summary of specific details such as:
- Accounts. List specific account numbers and what banking institutions or insurance companies you use.
- Access numbers or codes. Knowing about accounts won’t do much good if the executor can’t access them. Be sure to include any necessary passwords, PINs, or security codes, as well as your Social Security number, mother’s maiden name, password reset question answers, and so on to avoid problems.
- Contact info. Don't forget to list emails or phone numbers for people involved with your finances like your primary banker, stockbroker, insurance provider, and lawyer.
- Family and beneficiary details. If you have a strong preference for how your possessions should be divvied up or how money should be spent towards funding education for your children, this is the place to let someone know. This can also be extremely important if you have a disabled child who requires a particular type of care and you’ve set up a special needs trust to protect them.
- Locations. Let your family know where important documents they might need are found and how they can be accessed. Specifically mention your birth certificate, marriage or divorce documents, citizenship details, tax returns, and real estate titles.
- Pets. Don’t forget to include information on caring for your fur babies and who would be a good fit to take specific pets after you pass away.
Since it contains personal details and financial account info, the letter should be kept in a secure location that’s still accessible to your family, like a safe in your home office. If your executor has easy access to your banking details, it could also be kept in a bank lockbox.
Explaining Your Values
Providing numbers and locations is just one-half of a letter of instruction, however. Its secondary purpose is to serve as an important set of guidelines for the executor of your will by offering insight into your thinking and values. For instance, you can express wishes about your funeral proceedings, such as if you’d like family and friends to donate to charity in your name, gather at a specific place for the wake, and so on.
Although these wishes aren’t legally enforceable, it's better to let your loved ones know what you want than to leave them guessing after you are gone. Talk to an attorney with experience in estate planning to discuss these topics and other potential instructions or messages to leave for the executor that are tailored to your unique family situation.
Keep in mind the letter of instruction also needs to be updated from time to time as changes to your family makeup could render the original copy obsolete. Anytime you have a major life change, like divorce or having a new grandchild, you should take the time to update your will and letter of instruction.
Get Professional Legal Help for Peace of Mind
Are you starting to think about what you’ll leave to your family after you pass? Get in touch with a skilled New York estate planning attorney to go over drafting a will and letter of instruction as part of a comprehensive estate plan to protect your loved ones.