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A woman writing down her final wishes

Detail your wishes in writing to fill in estate planning gaps

by Amelia Burke | Contributor
March 15, 2022

Typically, when people think of an estate plan, they think of a series of legal documents. Depending on a person's circumstances, those documents might include a last will and testament, a revocable living trust, powers of attorney for finances and health care and an advance directive. However, thorough estate planning involves so much more than merely drafting legal documents. There are a variety of non-legal, less formal documents that you should consider including as part of your comprehensive estate plan.

Non-legal documents are an excellent complement to the more traditional estate planning tools, such as wills and trusts. These lesser-known documents, sometimes referred to as letters of intent or letters of instruction, have no formal legal standing but can provide crucial clarity and information to your loved ones. This article discusses the types of non-legal documents that you can include and their benefits.

What non-legal documents should you include in your estate plan?

When you draft non-legal documents, you have the flexibility to include any information that you want to communicate to your agents or loved ones. There are no requirements regarding what is and is not allowed to be included. Certain topics that you should consider addressing are listed below.

Asset inventory

It is helpful to include a memo or “cheat sheet” that lists all of your assets so your power of attorney, trustee or personal representative can access the information quickly and act on your behalf promptly. A non-exhaustive list of assets that you may want to name include:

  • Safety deposit boxes
  • Bank accounts
  • Real estate properties
  • Insurance policies (life, medical, disability, homeowners, auto, etc.)
  • Brokerage accounts
  • Individual retirement accounts
  • Employer-sponsored retirement plans and retirement benefits
  • Business interests
  • Art
  • Antiques
  • Cars
  • Liabilities (mortgage, car loan, credit cards, etc.)

In addition, you should consider including a note about your digital assets (online accounts, subscriptions, social media, cryptocurrency, email, etc.) and how to access them. Much of our lives are now online, so it is critical not to overlook your digital assets.

For each listed asset, you should include its location, estimated value, relevant contact information, account numbers, passwords and PIN numbers. You should also include the contact information for any professionals who help you manage your financial affairs, including attorneys, financial advisers, brokers, insurance agents and bankers.

Administering an estate is a time-consuming and detail-oriented task. A significant portion of the job is locating assets and creating an inventory. By providing a memo of your assets, your personal representative or trustee will have a much easier time as they manage your estate. Even more importantly, in the event that you become incapacitated, your power of attorney will be able to manage your affairs easily and quickly locate resources to finance your care.

Location of important documents

Having a memo that includes the location of important documents is extremely useful to your executors, trustees and powers of attorney. Documents that you should address, if applicable, include:

  • Wills
  • Trusts
  • Powers of attorney
  • Recent tax returns
  • Social Security statements
  • Birth certificates
  • Divorce papers
  • Insurance policies
  • Titles and deeds to property
  • Military paperwork
  • Immigration papers

If there are specific instructions on how to access each document, this should also be included. You should never assume that your family members will know how to find and access important documents. If any of these documents cannot be located, it can cause a massive headache for the individuals handling your estate.

Health care preferences

Most health care preferences are addressed in your health care power of attorney and advance directive. These are legal documents that have strict requirements about what can and cannot be included. In addition to these tools, you may find it beneficial to include a supplemental document that gives additional, informal guidance to your health care agent. You may want to include information about how your care should be funded and any specific wishes regarding your medical care.

Personal thoughts and instructions

a senior couple putting their estate plan wishes into writing together

You may want to include additional instructions in plain language regarding the management of your affairs as an accompaniment to your will or trust. This note can go beyond the often legalistic language of your will or trust and provide additional information on your preferences. A few topics that you may want to consider including are:

  • Instructions for personal effects, such as heirlooms and sentimental possessions
  • Instructions for the use of collective gifts, such as vacation homes and boats
  • Instructions for the maintenance of assets, such as real property and business, pending the resolution of your estate
  • Who you want to take care of your pets
  • The reasoning behind your estate plan, such as why a piece of property was left to one person instead of another
  • How a minor child is to receive an inheritance
  • Your personal aspirations for an heir's use of an inheritance, such as paying for educational expenses

Instructions for children with special needs

Providing your loved ones additional guidance is critical when you have a child with special needs. As a parent, you understand your child better than anyone else. Including information about your child's specific needs, routines, abilities and interests can make a huge difference in the continuity of their care if you become incapacitated or pass away. The instructions that you leave should include:

  • A family history, including current contact information and description of siblings, grandparents, other relatives and friends
  • Resources that provide assistance to your child including public agencies, churches and private organizations
  • Residential care needs
  • Educational information, including past records, current enrollment and future goals
  • Significant social relationships, including teachers, aides, social service providers, bus drivers, employers and friends, etc.
  • Medical information, including current doctors, medications, hospitals and therapists
  • Activities that your child enjoys and activities that trigger your child
  • The day-to-day schedule of your child
  • Behavior management programs, including those that have been unsuccessful in the past

These instructions should be continually reviewed and updated to reflect any changes.

Final arrangement instructions

Including information on how you want your loved ones to honor you after you pass is a great gift to give your family. It allows your loved ones to focus on grieving while feeling confident that they are celebrating you in the exact way that you want. The instructions that you leave and how specific or basic they are will depend on your unique wishes. Some issues that you may wish to address include:

  • Whether you would prefer a burial or cremation
  • The mortuary that you would like to use
  • Your preference on embalming
  • Whether or not you would like your remains to be present at any services or ceremonies
  • Who you want to officiate your funeral service
  • If you would want people to make donations to a specific charity
  • Songs you want to be played or particular passages that you want to be read at your ceremony
  • Individuals and organizations you want to be notified of your passing
  • Where your remains should be scattered, stored or buried
  • The headstone or marker you want
  • A draft or outline of your obituary

Although you can leave instructions for your final arrangements directly in your will, many professionals advise against this because a will is not always immediately accessible or consulted after your death.

Ethical will

An ethical will, sometimes called a legacy letter, is a personal document that you write to communicate your values, beliefs and life experiences to your loved ones. Creating this document can provide you with enormous peace of mind and is a unique gift that your loved ones will treasure long after you are gone. Legal documents, like wills and trusts, are simply not sufficient to convey your ethical and religious values, history and legacy.

In addition, the act of writing an ethical will can provide numerous benefits during your lifetime. Putting your thoughts to paper can help you live your life intentionally, make amends, address regrets and heal relationships.

What are the benefits of including non-legal documents in your estate plan?

Although often left off traditional estate planning checklists, there are many benefits of adding non-legal documents to your estate plan. First, it gives you added control. Legal documents often do not provide adequate detail about what you want or how your agent should go about accomplishing their duties. It gives you the ability to communicate your thoughts directly and in simple language to your loved ones and agents. Because it is not a legal document, there are no restrictions or formatting requirements. You have the flexibility to communicate whatever you want in the manner that you want.

From the perspective of your agent or loved ones, additional instructions and information can be extremely helpful. Executors, trustees and agents often wish that they had more guidance from the principal. Legal documents provide authorization and an endpoint, not a nuanced roadmap. The more information and detail you can give, the better and more efficiently they can do their job. Most disputes and lawsuits that arise during estate planning occur because your estate plan lacks guidance or can be interpreted in different ways. Fights over your inheritance at a minimum will drag out estate administration and, in the worst cases, tear your family apart forever.

Furthermore, while legal documents serve very important purposes, they do not carry emotional value. Non-legal documents can fill this gap and provide comfort and clarity to your loved ones while they are grieving. While not required, additional instructions and information can serve as a meaningful, final gift to your loved ones.

Do I need an attorney to create a letter of intent or instruction?

Although you do not need to follow any formalistic or content requirements when drafting non-legal documents, it is still a smart idea to work with a qualified estate planning attorney. An attorney can ensure that your legal estate planning documents reflect the intentions that are outlined in your personalized, non-legal documents. Your non-legal documents need to work together as a piece of your comprehensive estate plan, or it could end up causing more confusion. An attorney can make sure that your non-legal documents complement, not contradict, your estate plan.

Additionally, drafting a letter of intent or instruction can be overwhelming when you consider all the information you want to include. A professional trained in this area can give you a roadmap to get started and identify issues to be included that you may otherwise not have considered. They can assist you in drafting a document that communicates your needs in clear, simple language.

With your attorney, you should regularly review your entire estate plan, including any non-legal documents, to reflect any life changes.

How do I create an estate plan?

There are numerous options and scenarios to consider when developing an estate plan that protects your legacy and achieves your objectives, and important decisions should be made with the advice of qualified lawyers and financial experts. Membership with Legacy Assurance Plan provides members with valuable resources and guidance to develop comprehensive estate plans that take life's contingencies into consideration and leave a positive impact for generations to come. Legacy Assurance Plan members also receive peace of mind that a team of trusted, experienced professionals will assist them in developing legal, financial and tax strategies that will meet their needs today and for years to come through periodic reviews.

This article is published by Legacy Assurance Plan and is intended for general informational purposes only. Some information may not apply to your situation. It does not, nor is it intended, to constitute legal advice. You should consult with an attorney regarding any specific questions about probate, living probate or other estate planning matters. Legacy Assurance Plan is an estate planning services company and is not a lawyer or law firm and is not engaged in the practice of law. For more information about this and other estate planning matters visit our website at legacyassuranceplan.com.

Phone - 844.445.3422
Email - info@legacyassuranceplan.com
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