There are several different types of letters that can be left with your estate planning documents. These letters are not intended to have any legal effect on how your property is distributed. Rather, they are used to communicate facts, information, thoughts or feelings that are not included in estate planning documents such as a will, trust or power of attorney.
Parents sometimes attach letters to their wills explaining the reasons for naming a particular person as guardian of minor children. A pet owner can leave a letter to pet guardian or to his executor with instructions on how to care for pets and other animals that survive the deceased. A person with a lot of property may leave a letter of instruction to his executor about where certain estate property is located. Those who leave a legacy to their heirs often leave a letter with their estate planning documents explaining their vision for the legacy.Estate plan letters can be extremely helpful to your survivors in a variety of ways. These letters can be stored in a document safe or with your attorney, along with your will, trust or other estate planning documents. Consult your lawyer about any estate plan letters you intend to leave your survivors. Your attorney can advise on how to address your concerns and avoid creating confusion in your estate plan. This will help avoid costly
will and trust disputes that could reduce the amount your beneficiaries inherit.
Types of Estate Plan Letters
The first documents to create when making an estate plan are a will, a durable power of attorney, advance health care directives, and any estate planning trust that is recommended by your attorney. After you start the process of having these essential estate planning documents prepared, you may want to prepare other documents that are an important part of a complete estate plan, such as a Last Wishes Planner and a legal document to provide for the care of your pets or other animals if something happens to you.
The next step in making an estate plan is to prepare your estate planning letters. The type of letters that will be appropriate for your particular estate plan depend on several factors, such as whether you have minor children, whether you have pets, whether you expect your next of kin to disagree with your memorial preferences, and whether you are disinheriting an heir or leaving your estate to your children in unequal shares.
These informal letters do not take much time to write and can be very helpful to those you leave behind, especially if something happens to you unexpectedly. For an overview of the different types of estate plan letters you may want to write and samples of each type of letter, go to our section on estate plan letters.
Talking to Heirs About Inheritance
One of the reasons many people write a letter to heirs as part of their estate plan is it can be very difficult to talk to your children, parents, and even your spouse about money and property. If you know your heirs will disagree with you about how you plan to distribute your estate, you may decide it is best to avoid having the conversation. However, if you do try to discuss your side of things with your heirs, you may feel better knowing you were honest and open about your intentions. For tips on how to explain your decisions about your estate plan to those who are expecting to inherit, go to
Talking to Heirs About Inheritance.If you decide you would rather not have a conversation with your heirs about what they are going to receive from your will or living trust, a good alternative is to write an estate plan letter explaining your decision. Remember that an estate plan letter is not a binding legal document, so make sure your will and any other estate planning documents are properly drafted and executed.
Estate Planning Letter Example
The following is an example of how an estate planning letter may be used in an estate plan:Diane is a 60 year old widow with two children, Brian and Scott, from her first marriage, and a stepdaughter, Beth, from her second marriage. Diane has a very close relationship with her stepdaughter. They enjoy shopping and traveling together. Diane and her husband had shared custody of Beth throughout most of her childhood.After Diane's husband died, she decided to make a will and living trust. It was extremely difficult for Diane to decide how to distribute her estate. While she wanted to leave her entire estate to her children, she was very conflicted about whether to leave an inheritance to her stepchild. Beth is an equity analyst and makes a six figure income. Beth’s biological mother is very wealthy. Beth’s mother and stepfather have been gifting money to Beth for many years. They also purchased a home for Beth and sent her on several lavish vacations. Diane believes Beth will receive a large inheritance from her biological mother.
Diane’s two biological children are both teachers. Because they do not earn a lot of money, they both live frugally. They did not inherit any money or property when their father died. Even if they work hard and save for many years, it is unlikely Brian and Scott will ever have the financial security Beth already has. Diane owns a substantial life insurance policy. She also owns a nice home and has nearly half a million dollars in stocks, bonds, and other investments. By dividing her estate equally among her two biological children and leaving nothing to her stepchild, Diane feels she can provide her sons the financial security they may not have otherwise. However, she still has misgivings about not leaving an inheritance to Beth.
Diane shared her concerns about her estate plan with her lawyer. He explained that this type of dilemma is fairly common in stepfamilies or blended families. Diane learned it is not unusual for stepparents to favor their biological children over stepchildren when distributing property. She also learned that many parents decide to leave property to children in unequal shares based on factors such as the financial status of each child, the relationship between parent and child, prior gifts and loans, etc. Diane’s attorney suggested one of the best ways to address the inheritance issue with her stepdaughter is to leave a letter to her heirs with her estate planning documents.Diane agreed writing a letter to her heirs was a good way to ensure Beth does not feel slighted when she learns the contents of Diane’s will and living trust. She decided to explain the reasons for not leaving an inheritance to Beth in a letter she will store with her estate planning documents. Diane also decided to follow the advice of her attorney and discuss her estate plan with Beth now, to avoid Beth having hurt feelings after Diane dies. One of her primary concerns is to ensure there is no animosity between Beth and her stepbrothers over the estate. By having an open discussion with Beth now, Diane hopes to avoid Beth feeling she was disinherited by her stepmother.See make an estate plan for more information.
Letter of Instruction
You have probably given a lot of thought to whom you should name executor of your estate. You may have confidence in their ability to settle your affairs and honor your last wishes. However, it is usually a mistake to assume your executor will have the information he or she needs to handle this tremendous undertaking. See
executor checklist. In addition to any other responsibilities this person already has in life, they will now be tasked with the burden of being an executor, and they may be doing it for the first time. There are several things you can do to make the role of executor easier for this person.The first is to make sure your estate planning documents, financial records, and other items your executor will need to administer your estate are organized and easy to locate. The second thing you can do is leave detailed instructions on where various documents are located, along with instructions about other significant items in your estate.A Letter of Instruction is a document prepared by you or your attorney that provides essential information to your executor or the person responsible for settling your estate. By including this type of letter with your other estate planning documents, you can make sure your executor does not have to spend many frustrating hours trying to piece together information they cannot find.
To view a sample letter of instruction for estate planning, go to Letter of Instruction Form.