Why You Need a Letter of Instruction

Do you have any last messages you want to give people after you’ve passed on? Do you want to explain why you’ve structured your estate plan a certain way? Then you should include one or more letters of instruction along with your will. 

Unlike most elements of a good estate plan, these letters aren’t legally binding documents. That is their greatest strength. Here’s why letters of instruction are an important part of a well-rounded plan and what you can use them to accomplish.

What Is a Letter of Instruction? 

A letter of instruction is a non-binding document that explains your personal preferences and last wishes in plain language. While the letter itself doesn’t have any legal authority, it accompanies and explains the documents that do, including your power of attorney, will, and trust paperwork. 

The primary purpose of a letter of instruction is to ensure your executor understands what you want them to do. Estate plans can quickly become complicated, with many assets, accounts, and beneficiaries to keep track of, especially if you have a significant estate. The legal documents involved are equally complex. If your executor is not a probate professional, they may misinterpret or miss crucial details when interpreting these contracts.

The letter is there to prevent unnecessary confusion. You can use it to explain what your executor needs to do to fulfill your estate plan step by step. Since the letter doesn’t need to be legally binding, it can be written in simpler terms, making it easier to follow. This plain language helps prevent errors and ensures your wishes are followed. 

You may also choose to write multiple letters explaining the plan’s different elements to your beneficiaries, trustees, and other important individuals. For example, you could use one note to explain to your beneficiaries why you’ve chosen to divide your assets a certain way. You could use another to guide trustees on how to manage your trusts. In short, you can write instruction letters to anyone involved in your estate plan to ensure they understand what should happen next.

What to Include in Your Letter

If you choose to write letters of instruction, they will cover many of the same subjects as your will. However, they will also include extra information for the executor to streamline the probate and distribution process. Your letters should include important details like:

  • A comprehensive list of your assets and their locations
  • Data for all bank, investment, retirement, and life insurance accounts
  • Locations of your important documents not kept with your will, including birth and marriage certificates, your Social Security card, tax returns, property titles and deeds, and other crucial paperwork.
  • A complete list of your beneficiaries and their contact information
  • A complete list of any professionals who handle your finances.
  • Instructions on how to handle assets not listed in the will, like sentimental objects or heirlooms.
  • Personal preferences about matters that may not be appropriate for a will, like how inherited assets should be used or specific information about your funeral. 

Instruction letters can be less formal than legal documents, making them ideal for passing on last messages and critical information. You can even use this document as a kind of “ethical will,” in which you can give your beneficiaries instructions on how to live up to your values going forward. While these directions are not binding, many people find it emotionally fulfilling to include them in their estate plans alongside more grounded matters.

Ensure Your Letter of Instruction Is Accurate With the Dayton Law Firm P.C.

Whether you’re writing or updating your estate plan, including an up-to-date letter of instruction can be invaluable. However, the letter should accurately reflect your will when relevant, or it could cause unnecessary confusion for your executor. At the Dayton Law Firm P.C., we can help you ensure your letter is accurate, useful, and up-to-date. We will work with you to ensure it explains your estate plan correctly and provides effective instructions on fulfilling your last wishes. Learn more about how our San Jose estate planning lawyers can help you write a letter of instruction that matches your will by scheduling your consultation today.