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Estate Planning: Must Haves in Your Letter of Instruction

Atty. Syeda M. Madani

“A Letter of Instruction removes the guesswork and shores up your Last Will and Testament.”

Let’s face it: we must plan for the future. As an estate planning attorney, educating my clients on the importance of properly planning for their incapacity and death, as hard as it is, cannot be overstated. While most clients focus on the execution of proper documents and protection of assets, which is good, they fail to comprehend that their loved ones must first understand my clients’ thoughts and desires, allowed their loved ones to make proper decisions in accordance with my clients’ wishes.

The Letter of Instruction

A Letter of Instruction is a key, first-step component in planning for when you will no longer be able to articulate your choices and desires. The letter provides context and guidance and is not a replacement of a will.  Even though this letter has no legal authority, a personalized, easy-to-understand letter can be helpful to your loved ones.  The letter would describe the intent and offer the necessary background information for your overall estate plan.  “If anything,” I tell my clients, “this letter simply sheds light on where you’re coming from, so it ends up leaving no doubt of what you want when you’re unable to speak for yourself.”

The Letter’s Contents

Here are a few key points to consider when drafting your Letter of Instruction:

  1. Be personal and add your own touch. This letter should be your own personal wishes and messages to your loved ones. Some clients include words of wisdom, while others provide words of tenderness.  The goal is to be helpful and comforting and to provide them the necessary guidance that the legal documents may not address.
  2. Because this letter also serves as a “reference sheet” for anyone involved in settling your affairs, make it clear.  Vagueness only hurts at a time when emotions are raw and when certainty is needed.  Be clear not only with language but visually as well by including headers, bullet points, and checklists if these would be helpful.
  3. Identify necessary and important individuals to contact immediately, such as your attorney, accountant, insurance advisors, financial planners, employer, mortgage holder, and stockbroker. Remember to state their names, addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses. If you know certain things about them, include this as well. This can include details such as: “prefers phone call over email,” or “best time to contact is between 1:00 and 3:00.”
  4. List and describe the estate planning documents that you have and the locations of where to find these documents.
  5. List of all your assets including bank accounts, stocks, bonds, investments, property. Equally important, provide all of your known liabilities like credit cards, loans, or mortgages. Also list a contact person for each item, as well as the location of any related documentations.
  6. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, have a list of necessary usernames, passwords and PIN numbers to key accounts.  Because so much business is done online, this is an easy thing to overlook and my clients are often surprised when they realize they have many more usernames and passwords than they recall off-hand. Also, make sure you update the list on a regular basis.
  7. Finally, annually update the Letter of Instruction. Keep this letter in an accessible and secure place, so that your loved ones can immediately find this letter when needed, elminiating one more thing to think about.

Atty. Madani is now accepting a limited number of “Quick Call 30-Minute” appointments if you have specific questions about your will or estate plan.   30 minutes of attorney time focusing on you…the smart way to purchase expertise.

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