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What is a letter of instruction, and why might you need one?

When it comes to end-of-life planning, you’ve probably heard of wills and trusts, which are legal documents that determine who will inherit your property and possessions after death. But what about the other information you might want to convey to your loved ones after you’re gone? And what about logistics, like where you keep your safe or the passwords to your social media accounts? 

That’s where a letter of instruction upon death becomes useful. This informal document supplies the executor of your estate, the trustee of any trusts you create, and your loved ones with the information they need to tie up any loose ends after you pass. Below, we go into more detail about this letter and why it’s important to have one for yourself. 

What is a letter of instruction?

A letter of instruction, also known as a letter of intent, is an estate planning document that provides a variety of information. You can use a letter of instruction to supplement your will, including information that you think would be helpful to those dealing with your estate. But unlike a will, a letter of last instruction is not a legal document, so you have the freedom to structure and format it as you wish and include whatever information you want to communicate to your loved ones and beneficiaries. 

What does a letter of instruction include?

Your letter of instruction can cover a wide range of topics. It may be most useful if it includes the location of important legal documents, such as tax returns, property deeds, and citizenship papers; passwords to bank accounts and information required to access safety deposit boxes; contact information for bankers, lawyers, and brokers; and a list of assets and debts. 

Your social media and other digital assets are other areas you may want to address in your letter. Your executor will have the legal authority to access those accounts, so can provide details for handling them, such as deleting all of your emails or updating your Facebook account. 

In your letter of instruction, you can even craft personal messages for your friends and family to read after you’re gone. You have the prerogative to declare whatever you want in this letter. 

With that said, it’s important to note that because this letter does not hold legal authority, it only acts as a guide, and your executor is not legally bound to follow it. For example, you should not use the letter of intent to dispose of property — that should only be done through a will or trust.

Why do you need a letter of instruction? 

Writing a letter of instruction can be useful because it provides you with an opportunity to express your final desires and key information that might not otherwise belong in other documents. For instance, you may want to use a letter of instruction to inform your family that you’ve made arrangements to have your ashes spread in a conservation memorial forest.

This kind of letter is also valuable because, unlike amending a will or a trust, you can add or remove information any time you’d like without having to pay to do so. This allows you to update your letter as often as you’d like. For example, including passwords and account information in a will would require you to update your will every time that information changes. Keeping that information updated in a letter of instruction is a much more efficient and cost-effective option. 

You can also use a letter of instruction to explain uneven distribution of property or specific gifts of property. For instance, you may simply state in your will that you have devised all of your jewelry for your youngest daughter. But in the letter of instruction, you can explain (if you think it is necessary) the reasoning behind your gift. Believe it or not, conveying this type of information to loved ones may reduce the chances of hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and will contests.

Finally, while a letter of instruction is not required, it can be a big help to your executor and loved ones. Having all your logistical information, such as contact information and passwords, in one convenient place keeps them from having to search for it. It also takes out the guesswork of deciding what you might have wanted. This means they can start making arrangements and following your instructions right away. 

Find comfort through a letter of instruction

Making end-of-life arrangements can be uncomfortable and difficult to discuss at times but doing so will provide you — and your loved ones — with a sense of peace. You can rest easy knowing you have outlined your instructions, and your loved ones will find comfort in fulfilling your final wishes.

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