AARP says to head off bickering over your personal possessions, consider supplementing your will with a letter of instruction, an informal document that you can draft yourself. Where there’s a will, there’s a way—and sometimes an ugly family feud. Families are consumed with grief when a loved one dies, but unfortunately certain legal and organizational tasks that arise can’t be ignored or put off for long. But you can ease the burden on your loved ones by making some simple preparations in addition to a will.
To get in front of hard feelings and potential conflicts over your personal possessions, think about adding a letter of instruction to your will. This is an informal document you can draft which isn’t legally binding, but can be a helpful guide for your family. It gives your family more detail than what is usually in a will.
A recent article in The Wall Street Journal, titled “When a Will is Not Enough,” suggests that you organize your letter into three sections: funeral arrangements, financial and personal affairs, and distribution of personal effects.
In this first section on funeral arrangements, include a list of people to notify upon your death, and also include relevant organizations, government agencies, your estate planning attorney and CPA. You can also state if you want to be an organ or tissue donor (add the donor organization’s contact info), specifics on burial (cremation, for example), and any details about your funeral service. Also, if you’ve paid in advance for funeral arrangements, attach those details and cemetery information or where you want your ashes to be placed. You can also add in this first section any charitable donations in your honor, and you can sketch out an obituary in advance.
Keep this first section where it is readily accessible, perhaps with other important personal papers, and make sure a family member or your executor knows where it is.
The second part of the letter is for up-to-date information on your personal financial affairs for a family member or executor. Here is where you should list the contact information for your employer, attorney, financial planner, insurance agent, and stockbroker.List all financial accounts and the contact info for your account beneficiaries, and ensure that your designations are up-to-date. These designations trump any terms about this in your will if the two conflict.
The original article also suggests that you retain an up-to-date list about debts owed to you, like a mortgage, car loans, or credit cards. Another list should be all of your computer passwords and passwords to online accounts, and provide the location of safe-deposit or post-office boxes and where you keep the keys or the combinations. Given that the second section of your letter contains sensitive and personal information, keep it in a locked fire-proof box in your home. Give the combination or a key to the box only to your executor.
Third, you can go into greater detail than in a will to designate who should receive all of your important possessions. You can even add individual notes to family members with the main document.
It’s important to plan ahead now. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to get organized and have the peace of mind that you’ve done everything you can to have your affairs in order.
For more information about estate planning, please visit my estate planning website.
Reference: Wall Street Journal (November 15, 2014) “When a Will is Not Enough”