What is a letter of instruction in estate planning?

This informal document is not legally binding, but still contains important information

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Elissa SuhSenior Editor & Disability Insurance ExpertElissa Suh is a disability insurance expert and a former senior editor at Policygenius, where she also covered wills, trusts, and advance planning. Her work has appeared in MarketWatch, CNBC, PBS, Inverse, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and more.

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A letter of instruction is an estate planning document that addresses informal details that aren’t included in or appropriate for a will. Also known as a letter of intent, it is written by a deceased person to send messages to loved ones as well, and relay useful information regarding the estate.

Examples of some things commonly included in a letter of instruction are the deceased’s funeral arrangement preferences, informal financial information, and location their assets. The letter is personal, so it can also convey the deceased’s life lessons and wishes for their future heirs and loved ones.

Key takeaways

  • A letter of instruction is not legally enforceable; it is not a substitute for a last will and testament.

  • Use it to pass down financial information and burial wishes.

What is a letter of instruction?

As part of their estate plan, many people choose to create a will, a legal document that describes how their assets and property will be distributed upon death. Constructed in formal legal terms, the will contains the names of beneficiaries and the assets they will receive, as well as other pertinent information regarding the method of distribution.

A strong estate plan starts with life insurance

By comparison, a letter of instruction, or letter of intent, is more casual and written in plain English. It clearly states that it is not legally binding. The letter cannot replace a will. If you only write a letter of instruction but If you die without a will, or it gets lost, your assets will still be distributed according to state intestacy laws.

→ Learn more about who inherits from intestate succession

The letter of instruction also covers housekeeping issues, like where to find personal belongings, important papers, or an attorney’s contact information. Anything that might make the probate process and easier for the beneficiaries can be included. (We’ll discuss all the specific things to include next.)

Since the letter is a personal document, it can be used to impart wisdom and convey messages to loved ones. This could be meaningful personal stories, hopes and dreams you have for those you leave behind, even regrets and apologies. Some people might refer to the letter of instruction as an ethical will.

A letter of instruction is not a letter of testamentary, which is given to an executor of the estate as legal proof of their duty in maintaining and distributing the estate.

→ Read more about other important documents for estate planning

What not to put in a letter of instruction

A letter of instruction should not be used to distribute personal effects. For that, you should write a will. Even a simple will would do the trick, and let you bequeath items of any value, even none. For example, you could even give your grandchild that prized baseball cap that you have a sentimental attachment to.

Most of the time, these unspecified items tend to make up the residuary of the estate, which you can bequeath directly as a whole with a residuary clause in the will. An estate planning attorney can help you decide on the best way to leave assets to your heirs given your circumstances. After all, you want to do everything in your power to prevent any heirs from contesting the will, which they might do using the letter of instruction as evidence, though it is not likely to hold up.

How to write a letter of instruction

Writing a letter of instruction does not need the help of an estate planning attorney. You should write it in a tone that’s comfortable and true to you. While there are no requirements, here are things you might want to include:

  • Funeral and burial arrangements: The letter can provide instructions as to where you want to be buried or where to make charitable donations.

  • List of assets: Keeping an inventory of assets is not necessary, but very helpful for your beneficiaries and executor who is responsible for distributing them. This includes both tangible and intangible assets.

  • Personal information: Birth certificate, marriage certificate, citizenship papers, Social Security number, and social security statements

  • Financial accounts: Bank account numbers, passwords, log-ins, PIN numbers for any credit cards, retirement and investment accounts, stock certificates. Don’t forget a safety deposit box if you have one.

  • Social media accounts: In today’s day and age, it might be important to give your beneficiaries information about social media accounts, so they can retain access to your profiles when you die.

  • Location of important documents: Titles and deeds for any real estate holdings, oil and gas leases, life insurance policies

  • Contact information. For lawyers and attorneys, a life insurance agent — anyone whose number might be helpful to your beneficiaries and heirs

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