What Role Does a Letter of Instruction Play in Estate Planning?

Unlike a will, trust document, nomination of guardian, or advance healthcare directive, a letter of instruction is not a binding legal document. You may not see “letter of instruction” on an estate planning checklist, and you’re not required to provide one. However, letters of instruction can make a tremendous difference to the personal representative administering your estate, and to your beneficiaries.

Posted on July 20, 2018

While a well-constructed will clearly sets forth beneficiaries and the share of the estate each shall receive, and may even include bequests of specific property and instructions as to which assets to sell off if necessary to settle debts of the estate or costs of administration, wills are fairly dry and technical instruments.

What is a Letter of Instruction?

In simplest terms, a letter of instruction is just what it sounds like: a letter you leave behind telling your personal representative what to do. Of course, he or she is bound by the terms of your will, and you can’t alter your will by writing something different in a letter—modifying a will requires specific procedures.

However, there is often information that doesn’t fit into the strict legal format of a will, or explanation that may help clear the way for smooth administration of the estate. Here are some examples of information and explanation often included in a letter of instruction:

  • Information about where to find assets and how to access them, which may include anything from online account passwords and the combination to a safe to direction to a safe deposit box or life insurance policy the family may not have known existed
  • Preferences for funeral arrangements—although movies and television can be a bit misleading on this issue, your will is not the appropriate place to make these wishes known, and may not even be read before your funeral
  • Names of and contact information for your estate lawyer and any other key advisers, such as your accountant
  • Instructions for maintenance of assets, including real property and businesses, pending resolution of the estate
  • Any other information that may be useful to your personal representative in carrying out your wishes

Under some circumstances, you may also want to include explanation of certain provisions of your will or trust. For example, if you are making an unusual bequest, treating children differently from one another, or including another provision that could trigger conflict—or even a will contest—explaining your reasons in the letter of instruction may help beneficiaries to understand your reasoning and accept that you made a rational and informed decision.

Who Drafts a Letter of Instruction?

Generally, it’s best to have an experienced estate lawyer draft your will or trust and any other legal documents, such as powers of attorney. DIY wills and other self-service legal documents can result in costly mistakes that may not be discovered until it’s too late. However, the letter of instruction isn’t a legal document. It’s not legally binding, and as such is not subject to the type of strict, statutory requirements other estate planning documents are.

Therefore, many people write their own letters of instruction and update them as needed. That doesn’t mean, though, that you should tackle the letter of instruction entirely on your own. When you are discussing your will and other estate planning documents with your attorney, take advantage of the opportunity to discuss letters of instruction, too. An experienced estate planning lawyer will likely be able to help you identify issues to be included in the letter that you might otherwise not have considered.

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