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A Letter of Instruction Can Benefit Family Harmony

You may view your will as the centerpiece of your estate plan. But other documents can complement it. For example, if you have not already done so, consider writing a letter of instruction.

Elements of the Letter

A letter of instruction is an informal document providing your loved ones with vital information about personal and financial matters to be addressed after your death. Keep in mind that the letter, unlike a valid will, is not legally binding. However, its informal nature allows you to easily revise it whenever you see fit.

What should be included in the letter? It will vary, depending on your personal circumstances, but here are some common elements:

Documents and financial assets: Start by stating the location of your will. Then list the location of other important documents, such as powers of attorney, trusts, living wills, and health care directives. Also, provide information on birth certificates, Social Security benefits, marriage licenses, and, if any, divorce documents.

Next, create an inventory of all your assets, their location, account numbers, and relevant contact information. This may include, but is not necessarily limited to, items such as bank accounts; investment accounts; retirement plans and individual retirement accounts; health insurance plans; business insurance; life and disability income insurance; and records of Social Security and veterans’ benefits.

In addition, do not forget about liabilities as well. Provide information on mortgages, debts, and other obligations your family should be aware of.

Funeral and burial arrangements: A letter of instruction typically includes details regarding your funeral and burial arrangements. If you prefer to be cremated rather than buried, make that clear. In addition, details can include whom you would like to preside over the service, the setting, and even music selections.

List the people you want to be notified when you pass away and include their contact information. Finally, write down your wishes for specific charities where loved ones and others can make donations in your memory.

Digital information: As many of your accounts likely have been transitioned to digital formats, including bank accounts, securities, and retirement plans, it is important that you recognize this change in your letter of instruction or update a previously written letter.

Personal items: It is not unusual for family members to quarrel over personal effects that you do not specifically designate in your will. Your letter can spell out who will receive items that may have little or no monetary value, but plenty of sentimental value.

Final Thoughts

It can be difficult to think about writing such a letter — no one likes to contemplate his or her own death. But once you get started, you may find that most of the letter ‘writes itself.’ Your family members also will benefit from the peace of mind in carrying out your wishes during a time of emotional turmoil.

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