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Last Will and Testament: Letter of Instructions

The will, which states your preferences for how you would like your property handled after you die, is one of the most important documents you will produce when planning your estate. Without it, disputes among family members often arise, and some property may even be given to the state if no heirs can be found. But another, informal document -- a letter of instructions -- can go a long way toward providing additional clarity for your beneficiaries and the executor of your will.

While this letter is not a legal document, inclusion of certain elements can help make the estate succession process go more smoothly. For instance, the executor of your will needs to know where to find certain documents or how to log into certain online accounts. See FindLaw's Wills section for a variety of related articles and resources.

A letter of instructions should cover three main areas:

  • Funeral Wishes (whether you have already reserved and/or paid for a plot; if requesting cremation, where you would like your ashes spread; whether you would like to donate your body or tissues)
  • Financial Details (assets, both monetary and otherwise; any outstanding debts; contact information of employers or financial planners)
  • Personal Effects (where certain items are located; how to care for pets; personal messages to your survivors)

Specific items to include in your letter of instructions:

  1. The exact location of the will.
  2. Complete instructions for the burial/cremation (veterans may consider being buried in national cemeteries).
  3. Exhaustive listing of friends, relatives, and others who should be contacted upon your death.
  4. The exact location of all important documents, such as real estate deeds, divorce papers, birth certificate, any other legal documents and records.
  5. Any information related to membership in societies, lodges, or other such organizations (Freemasons, for example). Many of them offer death benefits for named beneficiaries.
  6. Where documents related to life insurance may be found, name of insurer(s), policy number(s), etc.
  7. All bank account information, including the names of banks and account numbers.
  8. A listing of any U.S. Savings Bonds (include names, denominations, and serial numbers).
  9. A listing of any stocks or bonds (and where they can be found).
  10. Any pension plan information.
  11. Income tax returns, both state and federal, from the past few years.
  12. A statement regarding any changes to your will.
  13. Location of any outstanding or recurring bills, plus a list of any outstanding personal debts.
  14. Where bills and records of payment are located.
  15. Any large gifts that you have given in the past few years.

Of course, the content of any letter of instructions will vary according to each individual's unique needs. The main goal is to help the executor of your will and your beneficiaries handle the process as smoothly as possible. Consider speaking with a wills attorney if you have additional questions or need legal assistance.

Next Steps
Contact a qualified estate planning attorney to help you ensure
that your loved ones are cared for and your wishes are honored.
(e.g., Chicago, IL or 60611)

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