A letter of last instruction is an estate planning document that simplifies the communication of instructions and desires following an individual’s death. Although the letter is not legally enforceable, it is an efficient means of providing answers and information during what can be an emotionally overwhelming time for surviving family.
Think of this informal document as a supplement to (rather than a replacement for) the official paperwork an elder law attorney prepares, such as a last will and testament and/or a trust. A letter of final instruction guides surviving family members through the estate administration process, directing them to important personal, financial and funeral information.
Items to Include in a Letter of Last Instruction
The following details should be included or addressed in a letter of instruction:
A List of Personal ContactsInclude the names and detailed contact information for specific individuals who should be notified at the time of death. Which family members, friends, clergy, organizations, or business associates would you like personally contacted?
A List of Business and Financial ContactsMaintain a current list of contact information for attorneys, insurance agents, accountants, and financial advisors as well as the locations of bank accounts, insurance policies and a list of account numbers.
The Location of Legal Forms and DocumentsInclude the location where important forms and documents are stored, such as a filing cabinet drawer or safety deposit box. Vital documentation could include a will, trust documents, income tax returns, social security cards, veterans benefits files, deeds, titles, mortgage papers, contracts, birth certificates, marriage certificates, divorce papers, etc.
Usernames and PasswordsMost people have online accounts for banking, email, social media, shopping, subscriptions and much more. Include usernames and passwords so that whoever is administering your estate can gain access to your computer and your accounts to close them. This will help ensure your accounts and the personal and financial information associated with them are not breached and/or misused following your death.
Information About Outstanding DebtsMaintain a list of debts you owe as well as debts owed to you. Don’t forget to include identifying loan account numbers, credit card account numbers, terms of payment, collateral, and/or privately held notes.
A List of BeneficiariesMake a simple 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. This list may also be used for you to provide any explanations you feel necessary for provisions in your will, such as disinheritances.
Instructions for PetsProvide instructions regarding daily care for surviving pets. Who should take ownership of them and how should their care be provided and funded?
Memorial Service and Funeral PlansProvide 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. Have you pre-paid any of your final arrangements? Is there a specific article of clothing desired for viewing and burial? Is there an individual who should be asked to provide a eulogy? Have you written your own obituary or is there information you would like specifically included in your obituary that someone else will write? Would you prefer mourners make donations to a certain charity in lieu of sending flowers?
Writing a Letter of Last Instruction
Make trustworthy family members aware of this letter’s existence and review the document with your executor to ensure it is understood. You don’t need a lawyer to write a letter of instruction or make changes to it if your circumstances or wishes change. However, it is important to ensure this document does not contradict any provisions set forth in your will to minimize confusion.
You’ll need to sign and date your letter. Update the document annually (even if only to include a new date indicating it as the most recent version and check that all contact information is still accurate). Be sure to store it in a secure place.
Preparing this letter can be a challenging and even emotional task. To simplify the process, focus on the peace of mind it will afford you and your surviving loved ones. The specific end-of-life instructions contained in this document will provide clear guidance during a difficult time, but they will also ensure that your final wishes will be honored. Compiling all this information in one document makes it much easier and less stressful for your personal representative to administer your estate and tie up loose ends.