Letters of Instructions

Properly created wills explain how a testator wishes his or her assets to be distributed after death. While this document is crucial in estate planning, it can also be extremely helpful to draft another more informal document, known as a letter of instructions. Although the creator of a will or trust does not have to complete a letter of instructions for his or her will or trust to be valid, it can go a long way towards ensuring that a testator’s wishes are fully understood and respected, so if you are thinking about planning your estate, it is important to contact an experienced estate planning attorney who can help you draft the necessary documents.

What Does a Letter of Instructions Contain?

Letters of instructions are non-binding legal documents, so unlike wills they do not need to contain certain information to be valid. However, they usually cover a few general topics, including:

  • Funeral arrangements, including whether the testator has already chosen or paid for a plot, desires cremation, or wants to donate vital organs;
  • Financial details, including a thorough description of assets and debts, as well as contact information for employers or financial planners; and
  • Personal effects, such as where certain items are located, how pets should be cared for, and any personal messages that the testator may have for specific beneficiaries.

Specific Information

Most letters of instructions also address some or all of the following specific issues, which can help forestall any conflicts or will contests during the estate’s administration.

  • The exact location of the will;
  • Contact information for lawyers, financial planners, brokers, and insurance agents;
  • A complete listing of friends and relatives who should be contacted after the testator’s death;
  • The location of important documents, such as real estate deeds, birth certificates, divorce decrees, and other legal records;
  • Information related to membership in certain organizations, some of which offer death benefits;
  • The location of any documents related to life insurance, as well as the names of insurers and policy numbers;
  • All bank account information;
  • Passwords and PINs for online accounts;
  • A list of any U.S. Savings Bonds;
  • The location of any stocks and bonds;
  • The location of any safety deposit boxes;
  • Pension plan details;
  • Federal and state income tax returns from recent years;
  • Statements regarding any recent changes to the will;
  • A list of personal debts and outstanding bills or expenses;
  • Information about any large gifts given in recent years; and
  • Instructions for the distribution of sentimental personal items.

Once a letter of instructions is written, the testator should tell trusted family members or friends about it and store it in an easily accessible place.

Contact us Today to Speak with an Experienced Estate Planning Attorney

If you live in Northbrook, Evanston, Skokie, Glenview, Glencoe, or Highland Park and have questions about planning your own or a loved one’s estate, please contact Orlowsky & Wilson, Ltd. Attorneys at Law to schedule a free and confidential consultation with an experienced estate planning attorney.


Updated as of July 2019
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