A letter of instruction is a document that simplifies the communication of instructions and desires at the time of an individual’s death. Although the letter is not a legal record, it is an efficient means of providing answers during what can be an emotionally overwhelming time. Think of this letter as a supplement to the official paperwork an elder law attorney helps you to prepare. It acts as a guide to direct family members through personal, financial, and funeral information.

A letter of instruction should include the following:

  1. The names and contact information for specific individuals who should be notified at the time of death. Which family members, friends, clergy, or business associates would you like personally contacted?
  2. Contact information for attorneys, insurance agents, and financial advisors as well as the locations of bank accounts and a list of account numbers.
  3. The location where important documents are stored, such as a file drawer or safety deposit box. Vital documentation could include a will, power of attorney, trust documents, income tax returns, social security cards, deeds, titles, mortgages, birth certificates, marriage certificates, and/or a divorce settlement.
  4. A list of debts along with identifying loan account numbers, credit card account numbers, and/or privately held notes.
  5. A list providing the names and contact information of beneficiaries. This list can also include any specific instructions clarifying your intentions for sentimental items without monetary value. For example, if a granddaughter has requested to receive a favorite cookie jar, indicate that her wish should be honored.
  6. Instructions regarding care for surviving pets. Who should obtain ownership of them and how should their care be provided and funded?
  7. Provide specific information regarding any desires and pre-existing plans for final arrangements. Provide deeds of plot ownership and specific instructions regarding flowers, pictures, or music. Is there a specific article of clothing desired for viewing and burial? Is there an individual who should be asked to provide a eulogy? Is there information you would like specifically included in an obituary? Is there a charity you would like supported in your honor?
  8. Clarify the location of important medical documents. Restate wishes articulated in a living will, including whether or not you are an organ donor.

Make family members aware of this letter’s existence and review the document with your executor to ensure it is understood. A lawyer is not needed to make changes to the information if circumstances or wishes change. Update the letter annually, even if only with a date indicating it as the most recent version, and store it in a safe place.

Preparing this letter can be a challenging and even emotional task. To simplify the process, consider the letter’s benefit as providing peace of mind for the whole family, including yourself. Not only will the specific instructions provide clear guidance during a difficult time, but they will also ensure that your final wishes will be honored.