There are many documents that can help with the estate planning process, both official and unofficial. Even if you have many of the documents needed to legally convey for your end-of-life wishes, it sometimes pays to have some additional help. One such option for this situation is a letter of last instruction.

A letter of last instruction is an estate planning document that simplifies the communication of instructions and desires following an individual’s death. It serves as an organized way to give your family the facts about your finances and end-of-life wishes. A letter of final instruction guides surviving family members through the estate administration process, summarizing important personal, financial, and funeral information.

It is worth noting that a letter of last instruction isn’t a will, nor is it a viable substitute for one. Additionally, it isn’t an official estate planning document either, so it is not legally enforceable. However, it is a potentially valuable estate planning tool, as it is an efficient way of providing simple answers and information during what can be an emotionally overwhelming time for surviving family members. Think of it as an informal supplement to main estate planning documents.

What is Included in a Letter of Last Instruction?

A letter of last instruction has two main jobs: outlining the location of your most important papers and compiling information about how you want your personal affairs to be handled after your death. As such, your letter needs to include ample information that covers everything your loved ones would need to properly execute your last wishes.

The following details should be included or addressed in a letter of instruction:

  • Personal Contacts: Include the names and contact information for specific people and organizations that should be notified at the time of death. This not only includes family members and friends, but employers, work associates, professional organizations, clubs, business associates, clergy, and anyone else you want to be informed of your passing.
  • Business, Financial, and Legal Contacts: Include the names and contact information of any attorneys, insurance agents, accountants, and financial advisors that will need to be informed in the event of your passing. Be sure to also include the locations of your bank accounts, insurance policies, and a list of account numbers.
  • Beneficiaries: Make a simple list providing the names and contact information of beneficiaries. Even if you have a will that details how you want your assets to be divided after your death, having a list of beneficiaries makes it easier to determine who is important to contact.
  • Locations of Legal Forms and Documents: Include a list of all important forms and documents, along with where they can be found (filing cabinet, safety deposit box, etc.). Some of the most important documentation here will include a will, trust documents, tax returns, social security cards, veteran’s benefits files, titles, deeds, mortgage papers, business contracts, birth certificates, marriage certificates, divorce papers, school diplomas, and military records.
  • Usernames and Passwords: A lot of people manage their bank accounts via email and online accounts now, so you’ll need to include users’ names and passwords for these accounts to ensure that whoever is administering your estate can access them.
  • Financial Information: You should maintain a list of outstanding debts, along with debts that are owed to you. Don’t forget to include identifying loan account numbers, credit card account numbers, terms of payment, and collateral.
  • Instructions for Underaged Children: If you have children in your care, you will need to at the very least provide a plan for their care until someone is legally given custody.
  • Instructions for Pets: Much like with children, you will need to provide instructions for the care and treatment of pets to ensure they are taken care of until someone else is officially given legal custody. Be sure to include any dietary information or other factors to ensure they are well treated.
  • Memorial Service and Funeral Plans: Provide detailed information regarding your desires for final arrangements, including any type of ceremony you wish to be held and what you want to be done with your body.

Anything Else?

Be aware that some (maybe even a lot) of the information covered in a letter of last instruction will also be found in your various estate planning documents. Your letter is simply there to compile as much of the most pertinent information in one place for the convenience of those managing your estate. Also, the level of detail that goes into a letter of last instruction can vary greatly from person to person: some people end up with an extremely lengthy document that could cover all necessary information if needed, while some might focus more on simply a point where this information can be found elsewhere.

Regardless of your approach, the important thing to remember is that the letter is a tool to ensure that your loved ones and those handling your estate have access to everything they need to guarantee your wishes are fulfilled, so act accordingly.

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