Letter of Instructions

A letter of instructions is an informal document that gives your survivors information concerning important financial and personal matters that must be attended to after your demise. As opposed to the other three essential estate planning documents – your will, durable power of attorney, and health care proxy (living will) – which you should have an attorney prepare, you can prepare a letter of instructions yourself. Although it doesn't carry the legal weight of a will and is in no way a substitute for a will, a letter of instructions clarifies any special requests to be carried out upon death. It also provides essential financial information, thus relieving the family of needless worry and speculation.

Information to include in a letter of instructions. Here are some things that should be put into your letter of instructions:

  • The location of important papers, including the will, birth and marriage certificates, and military records.
  • A summary of your investment accounts and insurance policies.
  • The location of documents relating to your personal residence, including an inventory of household contents and warranties and receipts for expensive items. You may also want to include a list of mementos naming next to each item the person you would like to receive it.
  • Details of the whereabouts of your safe deposit box, its key and a list of its contents.
  • An expression of your wishes about your funeral and burial preferences, including any advance arrangements that have been made.
  • The names and addresses of people and institutions that should be notified.

Obviously, your survivors will benefit greatly if you prepare a letter of instructions. But you will also benefit insofar as a well-prepared letter is a great way to organize your personal records – something all of us should do.

Keep it up-to-date. After you prepare your letter of instructions, please keep in mind that things change in your life, which inevitably require you to change the letter of instructions later on. While an out of date letter is nowhere near as perilous as an out-of-date will, you should still strive to keep it up to date by reviewing it at least annually or making any obvious changes when they arise.

Inform loved ones about where your letter of instructions is located. Finally, put a copy of your letter of instructions in any easy-to-find location and make sure your loved ones know where they can find it. Stories abound of families that have been unable to locate a well-prepared letter of instructions simply because the dearly departed neglected to tell them where it was.