What is a “Letter of Instruction” In an Estate Plan?

A “letter of instruction.” also known as a letter of intent, is commonly a relatively informal addition to your estate plan. This document gives your Successor, Trustee. Or Executor specific and detailed instructions regarding your wishes after you die or become incapacitated.

For example, the letter of intent may outline instructions about your funeral and its planning and execution, personal correspondence to certain family members, instructions on the homing and care of your pets, and much more.

However, you must understand that any letter of instruction should be distinct from your will or other legally binding documents in your estate plan.

No letter of instruction is legally binding; therefore, it never carries the legal weight of most other estate planning documents. Essentially, it’s to clearly state your strictly personal feelings and instructions regarding more deeply personal issues.

Also, you should know that there are no formal rules about the structure or the format of your letter of instruction.

Most professional and thorough estate planning lawyers will caution their clients against attempting to draft their estate plan (and for very sound reasons); they often allow and let their clients write and update a letter of instruction independently.

This differs significantly from any other estate planning documents, which you should only have drafted or altered by a qualified, professional estate planning lawyer.

That said, a letter of instruction may be informal but can be a highly organized way of providing your family with instructions on the decisions related to any pertinent financial or personal matters. For example, it is a sound alternative way of ensuring that specific family members are cared for in the way you wish and to prevent issues that could arise from not probating your will.

Of course, although you may write the letter, your empathetic and knowledgeable estate planning lawyer will always be ready to guide you through the process and ensure your wishes are abundantly clear.

What Are Some Examples of Things I Might Consider In a Letter Of Instruction?

First, always remember that any letter of instruction is an informal correspondence attached to your estate plan. Whatever you put into it is entirely up to you but is not commonly enforceable through the courts.

Therefore, if you want legal backing for any item in the letter of instruction, ask your experienced estate planning lawyer what specific legal document is required for that task.

That said, there are numerous things that you may wish to include in your letter of instruction that could guide and help your executor. Some of these things are:

  • A complete list of your assets
  • Any assets that may not be readily accessible
  • All account information, including passwords, PINs, and account numbers, for bank accounts, retirement accounts, etc.
  • Contact information for your lawyer, broker, banker, accountant, etc.
  • Informal ideas and guidelines pertain to disbursing your assets, heirlooms, and other sentimental possessions.
  • Facts and guidelines for your funeral.
  • Similarly, where your executor can find any other documents that may contain value.
  • Divorce or citizenship papers
  • How you want your pets taken care of and many more items

Once again, each estate plan and family situation differs, and although you may draft most of this letter, you can always depend on the advice of your skilled estate planning law team when needed.

What Is the Difference Between a Letter Of Instruction and My Will?

A letter of instruction is very similar to a Last Will; however, they are distinctly different documents. First, and the most critical difference, is that a letter of instruction isn’t a legal document, but a well-drafted and filed Will carries legal force. The California courts provide a simple overview to help you understand these issues before you work with your lawyer.

California State law requires that your executor strictly follow any terms outlined in your will, whereas no one is legally mandated to follow any guidelines in your letter of instruction.

However, due to this distinction, your letter of instruction can be much more flexible, and you can also use simple language in a letter of instruction.

In your last Will, California (and most states) have regulations that dictate its format and how it must be legally drafted. If a professional does not prepare your Will, it may not be enforceable when it’s needed the most.

Always remember that any letter of instruction cannot, nor is it designed to, replace a Will. However, it does have value in expressing your deepest concerns in a simple and discussable form. If you have any questions about its value or content, your experienced estate planning lawyer’s advice will be invaluable.

Some Valuable Tips on Drafting a Letter of Instruction.

It does occur that, at times, you might get caught up in more significant issues surrounding your estate plan and overlook important details that give practical assistance to your family when you die. A letter of instruction may be one of the best ways to provide detailed, personal information that could be invaluable.

This letter will allow you to provide your family, estate executor, and others with relevant, pertinent information immediately after your death.

For example:

  • Information about your funeral –Your family will begin arranging your funeral immediately after your death. Your letter of instruction will let your family know what kind of services you want or any pre-made arrangements you might have made.
  • General information on your finances – A letter of instruction will also allow your executor to immediately start work on collecting your estate property. You should be very specific about the assets you own and the debts you may have to pay.
  • Your possessions – A letter of instruction can be enormously helpful in dividing personal property not explicitly covered in your will. Some items may have little monetary value but can become sources of conflict. You can use your letter of instruction to help avoid disputes by directing who gets the property and providing personal notes to your family and friends.

I Want More Information About a Letter of Instruction; What Should I Do?

First, if you wish to appropriately handle your estate (and not by the California courts), having an estate plan is the best way to approach this issue. Obtaining a Fresno estate planning lawyer’s experienced, empathetic, and detailed advice will ensure that all your wishes are followed as you would want them to be.

A letter of instruction can provide a simple, understandable means to make these wishes known so that your estate plan is done right and cares for your finances and those you love after you’ve gone.

Working with skilled and thorough estate planning lawyers at the Bains Law Offices can save your family excessive stress, heartache, money, and time. Call them today at (559) 282-8924, and they will thoroughly and professionally answer your questions and put your mind at ease.