What is a Letter of Instruction?
What is a letter of instruction? A letter of instruction (also known as a letter of intent) is an informal supplement to an estate plan which provides your Successor Trustee/Executor with detailed information concerning your wishes after you die.
While a letter of instruction is not as legally binding as other estate planning documents like your living trust, it provides important financial information that will likely not be included elsewhere.
While we often caution clients against DIY estate planning, this is one document you can feel free to write and update on your own, as often as you like. This is different from the other documents, which should only be drafted or altered by a qualified estate planner.
There are no formal rules about the structure or format of a letter of instruction.
What To Add to a Letter of Instruction
What is typically covered in a letter of instruction? Here are some elements often included:
- Specific bequests for personal property, such as who you’d like to have family heirlooms, jewelry, firearms, etc.
- Personal desires concerning your burial, funeral, etc.
- Personal sentiments, messages to your loved ones, and expressions of love to be read when you are gone
- Instructions for the care of any pets
- Information to manage your digital life (like passwords to social media accounts)
- Details of the whereabouts and content of a safe deposit box
- The locations of important legal documents like your estate plan, birth and marriage certificates, tax returns, divorce or citizenship papers, and military records
- Contact information on any debtors (mortgages, credit cards, car loans)
- Names and contact information for any professionals who handle your assets, like attorneys, CPAs, bankers, or brokers
Why Write a Letter of Instruction?
Why isn’t this type of information generally included in your trust or will? Because you don’t want to have to amend or replace your documents every time this information changes. That would be expensive. At our firm, amending a trust starts at $350; a new will runs $250. If all of this specific information was included in your estate planning documents, you could potentially be paying us a lot to constantly update it.
Maybe 5 years from now, you’ll change your mind about who gets your gun collection. Maybe the person you wanted to get grandma’s wedding ring 10 years ago recently died or has become estranged from you. Maybe the pet goldfish you owned the day you created your trust died the next day.
Because these types of things change frequently, we believe it’s more cost-effective for our clients to put this type of detailed information in the letter of instruction and update it regularly – for free.
3 Key Takeaways
If you remember just 3 things about a letter of instruction, remember these 3 key takeaways:
- A letter of instruction is not as legally binding as other estate planning documents.
- A letter of instruction does not have a required structure or format.
- A letter of instruction should be updated annually and kept in a safe place where it is accessible to your Successor Trustee/Executor. You can also send a copy to your estate planning attorney to place in your file.
If you’re a client of our firm and would like to send us a letter of instruction, you can email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have any questions writing a letter of instruction, feel free to contact our law firm.
Daniel Hunt is lead attorney and owner at Law Offices of Daniel Hunt. He is also a California State Bar Certified Legal Specialist in Estate Planning, Trusts & Probate Law.