If you’ve ever been the executor of someone’s estate, you know that the role is a difficult one. Mourning the death of a loved one is painful in and of itself. Add to it the responsibility of sorting out what they’ve left behind and you can quickly become overwhelmed.
A number of questions must be answered before the actual legal settlement process can even begin. Where do the deceased keep all of their documents? Where are all of their assets? Do they have property somewhere that you don’t know about?
Resolving these issues can be very tedious and frustrating if the answers aren’t readily available. While you can’t control how other people organize their affairs, you CAN spare whomever you designate this frustration by offering a clear plan to follow in the event of your death.
Sample Letter of Instruction
A letter of instruction can simplify both the legal and personal aspects of settling your estate. While this letter has no real legal authority, it can put all of the important information that your executor or executrix needs in one convenient location. It also gives you a golden opportunity to relay any last wishes.
Here are nine important points to cover in your letter of instruction:
1. Financial Adviser Contact Details – Your executor will need to know who to call for answers to any financial questions. Be sure to list the names and contact information of any of the following financial professionals and advisers you use.
- Stock brokers and investment advisors
- Financial planners
- Tax preparers
- Insurance agents
- Real estate agents
- Trust officers
2. Asset Information – Clearly state the locations and amounts or valuations of all of your assets. Some examples are:
- Your house and other real estate
- Bank, retirement and investment accounts
- Life insurance policies
- Personal property
- Other, miscellaneous items like safe deposit boxes
- User IDs, passwords and account numbers for all of your liquid asset accounts (online accounts for any other asset should be included as well)
If you have assets located any distance away (i.e. vacation or lake houses, boats kept at a marina, etc.), include directions on how to get there. Give the name of whoever is settling your estate to any attendants who watch over your property.
3. Important Documents – List all of your important documents and where they can be found. This should include:
- Wills and trusts
- Income tax returns
- The most recent statements of all of your financial accounts
- Your most recent Social Security statement
- The deeds, titles and mortgages to all physical property, as well as their locations
- Personal papers such as your birth and marriage certificates, citizenship/naturalization papers, Social Security card and any and all divorce decrees
4. Debt – Give amounts, account numbers and statements for all of your debts, including credit cards, consumer and car loans, mortgages, and private debts of any kind.
5. Beneficiaries – Provide a complete list of all of your beneficiaries, both natural and otherwise, and all pertinent contact information.
6. Pets – This letter can also outline details that you might not think to include when preparing your will, such as what to do with your pets. If you want your goldfish to be freed into Lake Superior, this is probably the place to say so.
7. Sentimental Items – The lawyers may also hold for instructions to be given regarding sentimental items that have little or no monetary value. Save your executor a headache and list the items and desired recipients here.
8. Funeral Arrangements are another key issue that can be laid out in these letters. Some specific instructions may be:
- Where and how you wish to be buried or cremated
- Who you would like to give your eulogy
- The kind of flowers or artwork that you want displayed
- The type of music to be played
9. Reinforcement of a Living Will – You may also be able to describe the circumstances under which you want the doctors to pull the plug in simpler terms than can be used in medical powers of attorney. Use this as an opportunity to clarify your wishes and complement a living will.
Once you’ve completed your letter of instruction, store it in a safe place and update it periodically (probably at least once a year), to reflect any changes. Make it a priority to look over it with your executor/executrix while you are still around. It will spare them time and worry while assuring you that they understand everything as you intended.
Though it has no real legal authority, a well-written letter of instruction can be the most important document in the estate settlement process. This is especially true if you have a large estate or complex issues that must be dealt with.
Ultimately, an effective letter of instruction will serve as part of your final legacy. Providing your heirs with this document can free them to deal with their loss and settle your estate quickly, conveniently, and efficiently.
Have you ever faced the challenge of being an executor? How did the experience affect your own plans? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
(photo credit: Kathy Ponce)