What is a letter of instruction?

This estate-planning document is not legally binding, but still contains important information.


Elissa Suh

Published July 16, 2019

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  • A letter of instruction is not legally enforceable

  • It is not a substitute for a last will and testament

  • It should contain useful financial information and burial wishes

  • Use it to bequeath small items or pass down your personal values

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, and bequeath personal assets of little value.

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

In this article:

What is a letter of instruction?

As part of estate planning, 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.

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

(Read more about other documents for estate planning.)

With the letter of instruction, the deceased can mention personal effects that were not explicitly named in the will — this might include items with little or no monetary value, but perhaps a great sentimental one. For example, the deceased could give away the baseball cap he wore everyday to his grandchild. 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.

The letter of instruction also covers housekeeping issues, like where to find belongings 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.


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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 deeply helpful for your beneficiaries and executor who is responsible for distributing them. This includes both tangible and intangible assets.

  • Personal information. Birth 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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