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Letters of Instruction

Your will should not mention each one of your possessions because their value and nature change as time goes on. Revising your will upon every change would be both inconvenient and costly. Instead, your will should use general language in addressing the disposal of your possessions. However, it is important that you keep an updated record of all your possessions in order to assist your survivors.

A letter of instruction contains such an inventory. Because a letter of instruction is more likely than a will to be read immediately after death, it can also be a good place to assert your wishes about how you would like your body disposed of and your funeral arranged. A letter of instruction is the best place to make private statements to your survivors because your will, if probated, becomes a public document.

A letter of instruction should list your assets and liabilities, should specify their location, and should identify their form of ownership. There are many subjects that can be addressed in a letter of instruction:

  1. Liquid assets such as bank accounts, certificates of deposit, savings bonds, and money market accounts
  2. Stocks and bonds, including the name of any brokerage firms and a schedule of dividend due dates
  3. Insurance policies listed by insurer, policy number, face value, and beneficiaries
  4. Medical and death benefits
  5. Registered possessions such as cars and boats
  6. Liabilities like mortgages, loans, and credit card accounts

Despite its benefits, a letter of instruction is not a legal document and is not binding on your survivors. It contains information, not orders. You should include information on:

  1. Location of personal papers like birth certificates, military records, and tax returns
  2. Where you keep important keys and what locks they open
  3. Location of any safe deposit boxes or post office boxes
  4. Codes for locks, safes, and alarms
  5. Emergency contact information including child caretakers, pet caretakers, and property caretakers
  6. Places where you have hidden prized possessions
  7. Monetary or personal value of antiques/collectibles/heirlooms

Because it is not a legal document, a letter of instruction does not have to be a formal written letter. It can be in a number of informal formats such as on notebook paper, on index cards, or on a computer. Remember to update your letter of instruction as changes occur.

Copyright 2012 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.