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 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. For information on different types of estate plan letters and how to write them, see Estate Plan Letters.
Estate plan letters can be extremely helpful to your survivors in a variety of ways. These letters should be stored 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.
One Parent’s Estate Plan Letter
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 Estate Planning and Make an Estate Plan for more information.