If you’re like most people, thinking about your death and paying a lawyer to help you prepare for it doesn’t sit well with you. Nevertheless, you’ve likely thought about how your family will cope with your eventual demise or how you want to be remembered. A letter of instruction is an easy, flexible way of getting starting in the estate planning process.
Whatever concerns you have about your own death, a letter of instruction gives you the opportunity to put your thoughts in writing. It also allows you to start the process of preparing for the legal realities of what will happen to you and your possessions after you die. Letters of instruction are not a substitute for a comprehensive estate plan. However, people reluctant to begin estate planning can use them not only as a low-cost way of starting the process but also as a springboard to think about the important questions estate planning brings up.
What Is a Letter of Instruction?
A letter of instruction, or LOI, is a basic set of instructions, lists, and information you use to give your family or loved ones guidance should you die or lose capacity. You can include whatever you like in your LOI and make it as simple or as detailed as you wish. Through it, you can organize your thoughts, present a basic picture of the things you own, and make a type of roadmap that allows your family to have peace of mind knowing what you want if you aren’t able to tell them yourself.
Use & Requirements
Letters of instruction don’t have to adhere to any legal standard, form, or include any specific kind of information because they’re not legally enforceable documents. There are no state or federal laws that address LOIs or impose any legal requirements for their creation, amendment, or use.
You’re free to include as much or as little as you like when you make your LOI, as well as to change or update your letter at any time. This is especially useful when, for example, you want a basic list of all of your debts and assets in one place so your family will know what you have and where to find it if something should happen to you.
As a general rule, you should make sure your LOI is legible, organized, and printed. You should include a date and signature when you finish it. You should also make a point to store it in a safe place and let your family know where it is. You may also want to give copies to important people, such as your estate planning attorney. Otherwise, what you include in your LOI and how you express yourself is entirely up to you.
Legal Effect & Enforceability
Because no state or federal laws outline any requirements for LOIs, these documents are not suitable substitutes for other estate planning tools, such as a last will and testament that you can start with Trust & Will. If you rely on an LOI instead of other estate planning documents that have specific and legally defined purposes, you may leave behind an estate plan that’s ineffective and problematic.
For example, let’s say you want to create an estate plan in which you give your eldest child the right to make medical decisions for you should you become incapacitated. You also want to give your current husband – your child’s step-parent – a small inheritance and want to divide the rest between your three adult children.
You can accomplish all of these goals with the appropriate estate planning tools, including an advance directive for your health care wishes and a last will and testament for your inheritance choices. But if you only have an LOI, you won’t be able to ensure your wishes are carried out. Without a valid advance directive, your spouse will have the right to make medical decisions on your behalf, not your daughter. Without a last will and testament, your spouse will also have the right to receive a portion of your estate – typically about 50%, depending on your state – while your children will divide the rest equally.
If you haven’t begun the estate planning process, an LOI can serve as a good starting point. For example, once you identify your assets and debts for your LOI, you can choose how you want to distribute them by crafting a last will and testament. If you have specific desires about medical care in the event you’re injured or incapacitated, you can create advance directives that protect your choices.
Your LOI isn’t a suitable substitute for legally enforceable estate planning tools, but writing one gives you the chance to take a look at all the issues your family and loved ones might have to address after your death and begin thinking about how you can help them.
Letter of Instruction Sections
It’s entirely up to you to choose what you want in your letter of instruction, but there are some basic sections you should consider including. Remember that the primary purpose of your letter is to let people know about your wishes, your finances, and other key details about your life that they may have difficulty discovering on their own. With that in mind, consider including the following sections.
1. First Contact Information
Should you die or lose capacity, your friends, family, employer, and other important people in your life will want to know about it. Start your letter of instruction by including a list of people you want to be contacted should something happen to you.
- Emergency Personal Contact. Choose someone who you want to be contacted first in the event of your incapacity or death, such as a spouse, parent, sibling, close friend, or trusted advisor. You should also include one or two alternates in case your primary choice is unavailable. Be sure to include a phone number for each.
- Secondary Personal Contacts. List all the people you want to be notified after the emergency contact person. In addition to friends or relatives, you should also include the name of your employer, attorney, clergy member, physician, accountant, or anyone else who might need to know.
- Funeral Home. Detail whether you’ve already made funeral arrangements or if you have a preferred funeral home, and include the name of the home. If you don’t, make it clear that you haven’t made any funeral arrangements. You can mention any specific funeral wishes in another section.
- Estate Executor and Trustees. If you’ve chosen an executor through your last will and testament, or you’ve designated one or more trustees through any trust documents, identify these people and include their contact information. You should also ensure that your executor receives a copy of your LOI, and you may need to provide for trustees to receive a copy as well.
Pro tip: If you’re ready to begin your estate planning, Trust & Will is a great place to start. You can create a state-specific, legally valid estate plan in just 10 minutes.
2. Document Location & Access
Once the important people in your life know what’s happened to you, they’ll need to find any essential documents you have. If any of these are in a secured location, such as a personal safe or bank deposit box, you need to include details on how to find and access them. Similarly, if you’ve stored any of them digitally, you need to detail how to locate them.
Essential documents include those in the following categories:
- Estate Planning. Your last will and testament, advance medical directive, and any other estate planning devices you have will play a pivotal role in the event you die or lose capacity.
- Finances. Clearly identify the location of any deeds, vehicle titles, credit card statements, investment accounts, bank account statements, Veteran’s Administration or government service benefits, insurance policies, pensions, tax documents, Social Security details, and any other important financial documents or information.
- Personal. Your family may need to provide your birth certificate, Social Security card, marriage certificate, naturalization documents, or other personal documents as part of managing your estate.
3. Financial Summary
After you’ve identified the location of specific documents, summarize the relevant information they contain for easier management. Include a list of when bills such as utilities and loans need to be paid, as well as any income you can expect, such as salary, dividends, or royalties.
You should also list each bank account, credit card, investment, loan, and any other financial asset or debt you have, along with any relevant information, such as account numbers, the name of the financial institution, type of ownership, transfer-on-death beneficiary, passwords or access information, and use or care instructions.
4. Real Estate
Identify any real estate you own and detail the location of related documents, including information about how that real estate should be cared for in your absence. Detail when bills, including property taxes, must be paid and identify any household service providers, such as a lawn or pool care service, and landlord or tenant details.
5. Personal Property
Your last will and testament, inter vivos trust, or other estate planning tools control how you distribute your assets after death and what inheritances you leave behind. But you can use your LOI to address the personal items that have little or no monetary value, yet which may have personal significance to you or those close to you. Include the following:
- An Itemized List. List any specific items and the names of who should receive them. Include any family heirlooms, sentimental items, family photo albums, and anything else that may have special meaning to someone.
- Directions. For non-specific personal property, you can direct your estate executor to distribute these as they choose, or specify a procedure through which your family can select which items they want.
- Private Items. If you have anything of a personal, sensitive, or embarrassing nature, you can include instructions on how you want those items handled. Whether you want them disposed of, protected, or anything else, address them as you feel appropriate. In situations where discretion is paramount, you can include a section or instructions that can only be read by someone you trust completely. In some situations, you may want to address these instructions to your attorney.
6. Digital Assets
As more aspects of our lives move online and become digitized, it becomes harder to keep our digital assets organized. It can take some time to create a list of all your passwords, subscriptions, personal photos, and other digital documents, but your letter should include an updated list that details the name of the asset, how to access it, and what you want to happen to it.
- Social Media. Some online and social media platforms have specific policies in place for the transfer of these assets after the owner’s death or incapacitation, but others do not. For example, Facebook allows you to name a legacy contact who can memorialize or control your account if you die. It might be easier to start this section by describing your general wishes about your social media accounts rather than going through each account and determining what you have to do to comply with company policies.
- Personal Media. Identify the location of any photos, videos, and personal documents. These may be on your phone, tablet, computer, memory device, or in a cloud storage service. If you have private or personal photos, be sure to identify these and be clear about how you want them dealt with.
- Subscriptions. List your online subscriptions, such as Netflix or Spotify, and any other service you pay for that should be canceled after your death.
- Digital Property. If you have digital assets that have substantial value, such as domain names or websites, ebooks you sell through Amazon, or an Etsy store, you need to direct how these should be managed and who should have access to them until they’re distributed to new owners.
If you are a parent or guardian for a minor, or you have adult children with special needs, be sure to include the following information in your LOI.
- Guardian Designation. Should you die or become incapacitated, someone will have to care for your children. You cannot use the LOI to select a guardian, but you can use it to notify those close to you of who you’ve chosen, as well as the location of the estate planning document through which you’ve made that choice.
- Child Support and Finances. Detail any child support payments you’re responsible for making, payments you can expect to receive, and the location of any related court documents. If you’ve created a trust, have life insurance, or have included your child as a beneficiary of your estate, include that information as well.
- School. Include all relevant information about your child’s education, including their school, schedule, teacher’s name, contact information, and coaches.
- Medical. List any of your child’s medications, care requirements, and medical needs. Also include the name and contact information for their physician, dentist, and any other health care providers.
- Personal. Include day-to-day instructions about your child, including what activities they like, food preferences and allergies, habits, fears, passions, and anything else you think a guardian needs to know. You can also include special instructions to a guardian or caregiver that you don’t want the child to know about or add messages to the child.
You can use your LOI to leave detailed directions on how to care for your pet. Creating a pet plan that includes a pet trust is the best way to ensure your animal is protected after your death, but your LOI is useful for outlining the day-to-day aspects of pet care. Be sure to update this section as you acquire or lose pets or as their needs change with age.
- Food and Diet. Detail how often your animal eats, which foods are acceptable, and any other relevant details.
- Activity. Include instructions on how often your pet goes for a walk, what kinds of toys they like, how often to clean litter boxes or wash pet beds, and so no.
- Grooming and Veterinary Care. Include the name and contact information for your animal’s groomer, veterinarian, and boarding facility, as well as the details of any pet insurance policies you have.
- Licenses and Records. Many states and municipalities require registration or licensing for pets, as well as proof of regular immunizations. Describe where you keep these records and when the animal needs any renewals or boosters.
9. Funeral Wishes
Leaving behind clear instructions can help your family to grieve your loss without having to worry about the mundane and often stressful details surrounding funerals and final remains.
- Funeral Service Plans. If you’ve already purchased funeral or cremation services, or you’ve selected a burial plot, identify those along with the contact details of the funeral home and cemetery. If you haven’t purchased anything, detail any preferences for a funeral home, services, and final resting place.
- Flowers or Donations. If you want people to donate money to a charity or do something other than sending flowers, include those details along with the name and address or website of the charity you select. You can also include the address of where any flowers or messages of condolence should be sent.
- Ceremony, Music, and Speakers. Include directions for any funeral services or ceremony, such as music selection, celebration of life location, and who you would like to speak at your service.
- Personal Details. The funeral home or others associated with the service may need specific details about your life, such as where you were born and where you went to school. Include that information in this section.
- Photos and Personal Items. Identify any personal or family photos, special items, or anything else you wish to be displayed or available at the funeral service, as well as where to find these items.
10. Personal Messages
Apart from addressing specific details about finances, property, and funerals, LOIs are perhaps most effective at allowing you to leave behind personal messages or wishes to the people most important in your life. Whether you want to write individual letters to these people, want a special reading of your last words at your funeral, or anything else, you can use your LOI to leave behind clear statements in your own voice. Perhaps more than any other aspect of your estate plan, the messages you leave to loved ones are often what they remember most about your passing.
11. Obituary & Epitaph
Finally, you should include a brief section on how you want your death announced in a newspaper. If you plan on being buried or cremated, you may also detail what you want to be inscribed on your tombstone or urn. If you have other final remains wishes, include those in this section as well.
- Obituary and Epitaph. Include both a brief obituary for publication purposes, as well as an epitaph for your final resting place. If you want a photo published, include both a physical and digital copy if available. You may want to include multiple obituaries of different lengths depending on where you want them published.
- Publication Outlets. Detail where you want your obituary published or how you want to notify people of your death. Obituary requirements differ by publication, and you may want an obituary to run in multiple publications. If you already have a publication in mind, check the publication requirements and match the obituary length to suit. For example, it’s common for a local newspaper to publish obituaries of up to a specific length, such as 10 lines, without charge as long as you’re a resident of their area. If you live outside the newspaper’s area or want a longer obituary, you’ll typically have to pay extra.
Updating Your LOI
You need to update your LOI as you experience changes in your life. A good rule of thumb is to review your LOI, and any other estate planning devices, once a year. If you’ve experienced any significant changes in your financial, personal, professional, or family situations, you may need to update your letter to reflect that. For example, if you were recently divorced and your ex-wife is listed as your primary contact person, you may want to change that.
Like crafting an LOI, there’s no one way to change your letter. You can change any part of your letter as you like. If you do make any changes, it’s best to print the entire letter, sign it and date it, and give the new version to the important people in your life.
A letter of instruction is often one of the best ways for the average person to begin thinking about their eventual demise. This simple tool allows you to look at your life from a distance and anticipate how your future will affect those most important to you. A well-thought-out, carefully written LOI is a great way to not only put your thoughts and wishes on paper but also to ensure your wishes will be protected through a comprehensive estate plan.
What would you want to include in your letter of instruction?