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Letter of Instruction in Estate Planning: What It Is & Why You Need It

Creating a letter of instruction is an effective way to ensure your intentions are followed. Learn more about letters of instruction here.

Patrick Hicks

Patrick Hicks, @PatrickHicks

Head of Legal, Trust & Will

For those unfamiliar with the process, estate planning has become synonymous with some of today’s most intimidating and arduous legal proceedings. If for nothing else, the act of distributing assets and personal possessions upon the loss of one’s life is both hard to think about and difficult to accomplish without the appropriate help. It is worth noting, however, that there’s a simple way to ensure that even the most complex inheritance documents are accurately translated and expressed as intended: a letter of instruction.   

As its name suggests, a letter of instruction is designed to supplement and simplify the estate planning process for everyone involved. If you’re interested in learning more about letters of instruction, please continue reading. Our complete guide will cover everything you need to know:

What is a Letter of Instruction?

A letter of instruction is an important document used to help navigate the process of estate planning. Otherwise known as a letter of intent, a letter of instruction is designed to provide the executor of the Will and anyone else who may need to interpret the contents with an easy-to-understand explanation of the deceased’s intentions. In other words, they supplement the Will with a step-by-step guide on how to proceed with an estate plan that anyone can understand. In doing so, a good letter will tell the executor of the Will how to proceed, along with anything else that was either left out of the Will or needs further clarification.

For example, anyone who receives a letter of instruction upon death should know how to proceed with the estate plan. The last letter of instruction should outline everything from how to execute the Will to who will receive sentimental items; it’s essentially a key for translating the Will.  

In addition to supplementing a Will, the letter of intent also serves as a means for the writer to express their last wishes in a more personal format. With no legal authority, the letter of intent isn’t expected to follow the same rigid structuring as many of its legally binding counterparts, nor is it a public document. As a result, letters of intent are often personal and provide reassurance for loved ones. 

What is the Purpose of a Letter of Instruction?

Letters of instruction play an important role in the facilitation of Wills, which begs the question: What is the purpose of a letter of instruction? The purpose of a letter of instruction upon death is to simplify the inheritance process for any heirs who may not be up to date on the legal jargon associated with estate planning. Additionally, the letter of intent will serve as a compass for the executor of the Will to follow in the absence of clarity. That’s not to say the executor needs the letter to proceed, but rather that it may point them in the right direction when the Will is less than obvious.

Estate plans are nothing short of comprehensive. Even simple inheritances may coincide with at least some degree of confusion. Consequently, these letters were created to provide clarity for the numerous items that may not show up on a Will or the deceased’s intentions which may have been lost in legal translation.

What Does a Letter of Instruction Include?

As a document without any legal ramifications, a letter of instruction does not need to follow a specific format. While some people may prefer to leave detailed instructions on how to proceed with the Will, others may simply provide loose guidelines to follow and instructions on what to do with sentimental items. Regardless of the approach, there is no right or wrong answer for what to include in a formal draft.

Despite the lack of formatting rules, however, not all letters of instruction are created equal; some are inherently more useful than others. In order to make things easier on the executor and ensure all of your things are taken care of, a letter of intent should at least include the following:

  • The date (without a date, future discrepancies may ensure)

  • A comprehensive list of  all the assets in your possession

  • Where to find any assets that are not easily accessible

  • The location of any real estate titles/deeds 

  • The login credentials pertaining to any financial accounts you may have (passwords, PIN numbers, account numbers, etc.)

  • The contact information of those who have helped with your finances in the past (attorneys, certified public accountants, brokers, financial advisors, etc.)

  • Instructions for how the executor should disperse assets

  • Explicit directions to find important financial documents (tax returns, social security statements, birth certificates, etc.)

  • Your social security number

  • Any papers pertaining to your marriage status and/or citizenship

  • The contact information of creditors or policy holders (mortgage, car loan, insurance policies, etc.)

  • How to care for any pets that were left behind

  • The location of safe deposit boxes and their keys

  • A list of each account beneficiary and their contact information

  • Anything and everything you want to make sure is taken care of

The letter of last instruction is very flexible. While everything listed above isn’t necessary, it can facilitate a much smoother estate plan for everyone involved.

What Not to Include in a Letter of Instruction

On the surface, a letter of intent looks a lot like a Will; they both delegate instructions on what to do with assets and who gets them. Beneath the surface, however, there are several differences that need to be taken into consideration. First and foremost, letters of instruction are not legal documents–nobody is required to abide by their terms. A Will, on the other hand, is a legal document enforced by state law. You shouldn’t include the distribution of any assets in a beneficiary letter of intent that aren’t already in the Will.

To be perfectly clear, a letter of intent should not be used to distribute personal effects; that’s what a Will is for. Instead, make sure everything you want distributed is outlined in the Will and use the letter of intent to clarify the terms. Whatever you do, don’t assume the terms of the letter will be followed. While the letter of last instruction is designed to facilitate the execution of the Will, there’s no guarantee it will ever be read. 

Is a Letter of Last Instruction a Legal Document?

For as pivotal a role the letter of instruction plays in the estate planning process, far too many people are left pondering the same question: Is a letter of last instruction a legal document? To be perfectly clear, a letter of last instruction is not a legal document. Whereas a Will is legally enforceable by state law, a letter of intent is essentially a note that helps expedite the estate planning process; it is a supplement to the Will, not a replacement.  Therefore, as a document that can’t legally be enforced, the letter of intent should not contain unique instructions that aren’t aren’t outlined anywhere else. Instead, a letter of intent may be incorporated into legal documents for heirs to be able to understand what’s happening.

Why Use a Letter of Instruction?

The letter of last instruction serves as a compliment to the Will (a legal document that’s not always as transparent as many would appreciate). In fact, the ambiguity that results from creating a Will is the sole reason for the letter’s existence. Drafting one clarifies the Will’s intentions, which gives the writer an opportunity to express any wishes that may not otherwise be found anywhere else. For example, there’s no reason the letter of intent can’t include burial arrangements or guidance for loved ones.

The utility is ultimately the primary reason people write a letter of intent; it can say and request just about anything. Instead of asking yourself “why use a letter of instruction,” in fact,  it may be more beneficial to ask another question: Why not? At the very least, there are many more reasons to use one than there are to not use one. The benefits of a well-crafted letter of intent greatly outweigh the drawbacks of not writing one at all; in fact, there’s really no reason not to write one.

How to Write a Letter of Instruction

Scouring the internet won’t reveal a universal letter of instruction sample to borrow from. The inherent flexibility and non-legal nature of the letters suggest there’s no right or wrong way to write them. That said, there are a few unwritten rules you may want to abide by. 

For starters, anyone who doesn’t know how to write a letter of instruction (or may feel uncomfortable doing so) is more than welcome to enlist the services of a qualified professional. Trained lawyers, for example, know exactly where discrepancies are most likely to arise and are more than equipped to help someone address them. The executor of your own Will should be a good place to start; they will have the most current information and access to the most important documents.

Since most lawyers won’t physically write the letter for you, expect to spend a lot of time on it. The process will most likely take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. The length of time permits the writer to gather all of their necessary thoughts and legal documents. Only once everything is in order should the letter be written. Be sure to include as much detail as possible and keep it alongside the Will and other important documents. 

Update Your Estate Plan Today

A properly crafted letter is not to be confused with a Will. Instead of serving as a legal document that distributes personal effects and assets, a letter of instruction is a key which helps translate the Will’s intentions. Thanks to the letter of instruction, heirs and executors will know exactly what the deceased’s intentions are and how the estate plan should be carried out.

The addition of a letter of instruction to your Will can expedite the estate planning process in a way that makes things easier for everyone involved. Additionally, you can rest assured your wishes are carried out exactly as you intended.

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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