Letters of Instruction
Estate plans should be “evergreen”. In other words, they should be living documents that can be changed and/or updated at any time so they are always a current reflection of one’s personal situation and preferences.
When I prepare estate plans, I always include two forms that can be completed by the client at a later date. They pertain to personal matters and preferences that may require great thought and reflection. These forms, called “Letters of Instruction”, don’t require legal assistance to complete and I instruct my clients to complete them at their leisure.
The first form is the “Specific Gifts” form which can be used in conjunction with a will or trust. Most of us have some physical items we would like to leave to particular persons: children, relatives or friends. The items listed can be valuable, like a piece of jewelry, or sentimental, like a family picture or collection of Beanie Babies. The form I use is a simple form, mostly made up of blank lines, so that a person can list items that he or she wants to give to particular people. This gives the client the freedom to add or alter the disposition without having to formally amend the estate plan. Even if a person does not have a will or trust, he or she can provide for distribution of his or her personal property by instructing a trusted relative or friend to distribute the items. We often hear someone say they want a certain item to go to a certain person, but putting it in writing is always the best way to communicate your wishes and it greatly reduces any possible family tension. It should be noted, however, that unless there is a will or trust which refers to the letter of instruction, it may not be legally binding.
Another form I always include in estate plans that I prepare concerns funeral preferences. Letters of instruction are particularly useful for funeral and burial directions because, by California law, these directions may be given without the formality of a will or trust. A person can plan in advance all or part of a funeral or memorial service, such as certain songs to be sung, words to be spoken, clothing to be worn, pallbearers, etc. When someone has put in writing what they want done for them, it makes it easier on the grieving family by eliminating so much of the decision making. I have already picked out the picture I want on my obituary – a glamour shot taken a few years ago. I guess if I live to a ripe old age it may not reflect what I look like then, but it’s what I want and my family knows it.
These two forms are part of the estate plan that I offer, but anyone can sit down and write out their wishes on a note pad. Also, they can change them at any time. So, whether you have a formal estate plan or not, you should take the time to prepare these forms. © 2012 by Marlene S. Cooper.