Will your family know what to do after you pass, or will it be a mystery?
Don’t leave them with the frustration of being in the dark. When a loved one dies, no one wants to play hide and seek for critical documents and key information. Instead, leave a letter of instructions.
Betty was recently in our office updating her estate plan. She related the story of a friend whose father suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. The family was thrown into terrible chaos. Although there was a full set of estate planning documents, they didn’t know where to find them or who to contact. A letter of instructions would have saved them a great deal of trouble.
What is a Letter of Instructions?
A letter of instructions is just what it sounds like. It’s not a legal document. It simply provides important information when a loved one dies. It’s also sometimes handy in the event of sudden serious illness or critical injury. The information is different than what is covered in your will.
You’re Never Too Young
Most of us, especially in our younger years, rarely think through the details of what those left behind might have to deal with. But we can all probably name someone who died unexpectedly, before their time. For that reason, we recommend that people complete an estate plan and letter of instructions sooner, rather than later.
Select a Go-To Person
Your go-to person should be one of your most trusted associates. Usually, it’s the executor named in estate planning documents. In Betty’s case it’s her brother, with his son as a backup. Both live several hours away in a neighboring state.
Go-to tip: Most of our clients first get permission to name someone as their trustee or go-to person. It seems like the decent thing to do, rather than making it a surprise.
Make Your Letter of Instructions Useful
Think about your wishes, obligations and questions people will have upon your passing.
Where do I find… Provide details about where things can be found. Where are the spare keys? Do any neighbors have keys? Where is your address book? Is it on paper or in digital format? Where can important documents be found? In a secure location? Document the combination to the safe or the location of the key.
What’s the password to… This might require a separate digital file, depending on how much information is there. Document the passwords of computers and online accounts that need to be closed or otherwise dealt with. As a bonus, you will find this to be helpful for your own regular use.
Who should be contacted? Think about the people you want to be notified or need to be called in the event of your death. Close family and friends are a good start. Also list attorneys, financial advisors, insurance agents, healthcare providers or ministers that might need to be contacted. And don’t forget any business associations or social clubs that should be informed.
What about financial institutions and obligations? Your paper files will probably provide a great deal of information. If, however, your go-to person doesn’t live near you, it will be far more convenient for them to have the information on hand, probably in a digital file.
Personal preferences. Finally, outline your wishes regarding anything related to the publication of your death, your funeral, method of burial and religious considerations. Certainly, include information related to a cemetery or burial plot if you’ve made advance arrangements.
If you have social media accounts, consider your digital rights and what you can do with your accounts. Facebook, for example, offers the option to memorialize the account.
Configure and Update Your Go-Box and Letter of Instructions
It’s not important to follow this exact pattern. Your own situation and preferences will dictate the way you set things up in your Go-Box. The important thing is to eliminate unnecessary hassles. Think through the details of how people can be best served with useful information.
Keep printed copies of your most critical documents in a secure, fireproof container in your home, along with any digital information on a thumb drive. Your go-to person can have your letter of instructions in digital form, along with any other information you want them to have.
Update your instructions. How often you do it simply depends on how often important information changes, compared to the practicality of performing the update. Without question, it should be reviewed whenever your estate plan is updated.
Betty has her estate planning documents in a FireKing Turtle. It offers a combination safe and a drawer for hanging files. In the event of a fire, it will all remain undamaged. Betty’s brother and her son both have digital versions of everything they need if something happens to her.
The Most Important Preparations
Saving your loved ones some hassle and inconvenience through a letter of instructions is a great thing to do. What’s immeasurably more important is to make sure your wishes are honored, and that your family’s interests are protected through proper estate planning.
If you live in the St. Louis area, and have questions about the state of your affairs, call Quinn Estate & Elder Law at 636-686-6790.