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How to Write a Letter of Instruction: A Step-by-Step Guide

Writing a letter of instruction can help expedite the estate planning process. Learn exactly how to write a letter of instruction for heirs and executors here.

Patrick Hicks

Patrick Hicks, @PatrickHicks

Head of Legal, Trust & Will

Letters of instruction have become an important component in the estate planning process. When paired with a Will, a letter of instruction will simultaneously clarify any potential discrepancies and ensure one’s intentions are carried out upon passing. These documents are so useful, in fact, that everyone should consider including one in their estate plan and respective Will. Subsequently, now is as good of a time as any to learn how to write a letter of instruction.

A carefully crafted letter of instruction is well worth anyone’s time. Therefore, please keep reading if you would like to learn how to write a letter of instruction of your own. This  guide is designed to teach you how to write a letter of instruction for heirs, or anyone else who may benefit from a little more direction. In doing so, we’ll cover the following: 

What is a Letter of Instruction?

On the surface, a letter of instruction is exactly what it sounds like: a letter with instructions. Beneath the surface, however, a letter of instruction is an informal document created to assist in the execution of a Will and its respective estate plan. 

Also known as a letter of intent, a letter of instruction is specifically designed to express the deceased’s final wishes—everything from how the estate plan should be carried out to the location of important documents and guidance for loved ones. In addition to what needs to be done, a good letter of instruction will also divulge exactly how to go about doing so. Please consult our guide, What is a Letter of Instruction in Estate Planning, for additional information. 

Do I Need a Letter of Instruction?

A letter of instruction is not required to supplement a Will, nor is it even recognized by state law. Nonetheless, the benefits of drafting a letter of instruction greatly outweigh the drawbacks of not writing one. If for nothing else, there’s absolutely no reason not to write one. 

Those who neglect to add a final letter of intent to their Will simply miss out on the opportunity to express their wishes. Perhaps even more importantly, the lack of a letter exposes the estate plan to unnecessary risk. In the event of a discrepancy or the slightest amount of confusion, there’s always the possibility of an error being made—one that can disrupt the entire estate plan. A properly worded letter, on the other hand, can set everything right. 

There you have it; a letter of instruction is relatively easy to write and can help avoid significant mistakes from occurring. While it will require some time to draft, the risk of not having one is too great.  

How to Write a Letter of Instruction

Do not let the informal nature of these letters trick you into thinking they won’t require a bit of your time. While more casual than most legal documents, it’s still important to learn how to write a letter of instruction correctly.

While there’s no universal format to follow, the steps outlined below will help you write your own letter of instruction:

  1. Make a list of information and items to include

  2. Start writing your letter of instruction

  3. Reflect on your letter and make additions as needed

  4. Attach a copy of your letter of instruction to your will

1. Make a list of information & items to include

The first step in writing a letter of instruction has more to do with gathering information than actually putting pen to paper. Not unlike writing just about anything else, a good letter of instruction starts with research. Before you even write your first word, make a comprehensive list of all the items and information you will want to include. Of course, everyone’s list will be different, but these are the items you need to prioritize:

  • The date: As an informal document, updates can be made whenever you want. It is important for the letter to have the most recent date any amendments were made, as to avoid any future complications.

  • Assets: Make a comprehensive list of all your assets. Everything you own that contributes to your net worth should be included in the letter (literally and figuratively). Real estate, automobiles, equities, savings accounts, Certificates of Deposit, other investments, and any other assets in your name (liquid or illiquid) should be accounted for.

  • Asset location: Describe, in detail, where each of your assets can be found (and their corresponding documents).

  • Asset credentials: In addition to divulging where your assets can be found, include the appropriate credentials for gaining access to them. A good letter of instruction will provide passwords, PIN numbers, account numbers, and any other logins required to gain access to the previously mentioned assets.

  • Financial contact information: Include the contact information of anyone who has helped you with your assets in the past and their relationship to you. Attorneys, certified public accountants, brokers, and financial advisors with first-hand knowledge of your assets could prove useful to your heirs.

  • Disbursement instructions: Carefully detail how you want the executor of your Will to disperse each of the assets.

  • Important documents: Leave explicit directions for how to find important documents. Tax returns, social security statements, birth certificates, marriage certificates, citizenship papers, social security number, and any other documents pertaining to your identification should be present.

  • Policy information: Include the contact and account information for any policies or accounts you currently have open. Life insurance policies, mortgage loans, auto loans, insurance policies, and any other accounts which may need to be paid out or settled should be acknowledged.

  • Pet care: Instruct the executor what to do with any pets that were left behind. Include the details on their specific care and the contact information for their vet.

  • Safe deposit boxes: Include the location of safe deposit boxes, their contents, and keys.

  • Account beneficiaries: Write out the names and contact information for each beneficiary listed in the Will.

  • Final wishes: Include any final wishes you may have, whether it’s burial preferences and music for the funeral or kind words heirs.

2. Start writing your letter of instruction

The second step in learning how to write a letter of instruction begins with organizing the information listed above. Take a minute to outline the flow of the letter, but don’t worry too much about the formatting. Not recognized as a legal document, letters of instruction tend to vary dramatically, and there’s no reason you need to be the exception.

The formatting and content of each letter is unique to each writer, and carefully crafted to express their own intentions. While no two letters are alike, however, the purpose is the same: to tell heirs and the executor of the Will how to proceed with the estate plan. In doing so, letters will supplement the Will with everything that was gathered from step one. 

Use the letter of instruction like a key; one that can help decipher the Will. Start by identifying any area of the Will which may benefit from further explanation. Use the information gathered in the first step to clear up any potential ambiguity. Try to be clear and concise, and don’t be afraid to include any personal touches the beneficiaries may appreciate.

3. Reflect on your letter & make additions as needed

Again, a letter of intent is not a legal document. As a result, there’s no need to consult a lawyer or notary to make an amendment to the existing content. Additions and subtractions can be made to a letter at any point. In fact, you are strongly advised to regularly update your letter of instruction when circumstances and relationships change. As the physical representation of your final wishes, the letter of instruction should reflect your current intentions. That said, every update should also coincide with a new date on the document; doing so will add further clarification to the estate planning process down the road.

4. Attach a copy of your letter of instruction to your will

It isn’t enough to simply learn how to write a letter of instruction; you also need to know what to do with it once it is completed. Once you are certain everything is in place and the letter clearly gets your intentions across, proceed to make physical copies. Make at least two; one to keep in a safe place of your own and one to attach to the Will. The copy you keep for yourself (physical or digital) will serve as the letter of instruction template to follow for future amendments. The copy reserved for the Will is the final letter of intent; it’s the one the executor will refer to. It is worth noting, however, that you must be sure to change the final letter of instruction with the Will whenever you make changes to the document. 

Update Your Estate Plan Today

Letters of instruction are usually written with the intention of translating the contents of the Will. That’s not to say a letter of instruction can take the place of a Will, but rather that it can supplement the legal document with a step-by-step guide on how to proceed. Since Wills can be confusing for heirs to understand, it is not a bad idea to learn how to write a letter of instruction. Following the steps above, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to convey the correct message to those who matter the most. 

Learning how to write a letter of instruction is just one cog in the machine that is estate planning. Here at Trust & Will, we’re here to help keep things simple. You can create a fully customizable, state-specific estate plan from the comfort of your own home in just 20 minutes. Take our free quiz to see where you should get started, or compare our different estate planning and settlement options today! 

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