Estate Planning: Preparing a Letter of Instruction  

As the global pandemic stretches into its fourth month, many of you are turning your attention to your estate plan. While the primary focus is having in place an up-to-date Will, Power of Attorney, and Health Care Directive (in New Jersey) or Health Care Proxy and Living Will (in New York), part of your planning should include a detailed Letter of Instruction. While it is commonly believed that a Will contains everything an Executor needs to know to administer an estate, a Will may not provide specific instructions regarding funeral and burial preferences, the location of important legal documents, the location of assets, and/or passwords to the numerous online accounts we all now hold.

While not legally binding to dispose of your assets (that’s the job of the Will), a well drafted Letter of Instruction can be an invaluable tool for the person you have entrusted to ensure that your wishes are fulfilled. It may contain the following information that will help enable your Executor to administer your estate in the smoothest way possible: 

  • Information regarding any pre-arranged funeral and burial plans or specific requests you may have for your funeral and related arrangements, including any preferred religious leader or principles.

  • The location of your Will and other important documents relating to your estate.

  • Contact information for your family, friends, and beneficiaries.

  • Your detailed personal information including your social security number, name and place of birth, and the full names of your parents. 

  • The location of legal documents such as your birth certificate, social security card, passport, and marriage and/or divorce documentation.

  • The location of all financial accounts including checking, savings, brokerage, retirement, annuity or insurance.

  • The location of your tax returns and contact information for your accountant.

  • Information regarding digital accounts you maintain including each account’s username and password.

  • Contact information for various professionals who may have information regarding your finances such as a lawyer, financial advisor or insurance agent.

  • An explanation of any items in your Will that may cause friction or resentment among your heirs (e.g., disproportionate distributions among beneficiaries, disinheritance of a family member).

  • Any other personal information, specific to you, that your Executor may need.

Once your Letter of Instruction is complete, either provide a copy to someone you trust, or let that person know where you will leave the Letter for them when the time comes. You may also find both digital and hard copies of life organization tools that will help you compile and update the record for your loved ones.

With estate planning, as with most things in life, a small effort now can save a much greater effort and expense for your loved ones later.