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A Letter of Instructions: What Your Family Needs To Know

A Letter of Instructions: What Your Family Needs To Know

If you have drawn up a will, a health care proxy, and a durable power of attorney, you need to consider an additional document: a Letter of Instructions. The letter is personal and contains information to help family members cope with decisions that need to be made shortly following your death.

How does the Letter of Instructions differ from a will? A will, at the event of your passing, may not be read for several days. However, a Letter of Instructions would be available immediately to guide your survivors in the hours and days after death. The letter can contain answers – in your own words – to questions such as these:

  • Is there a memorial fund for designated contributions?
  • How can personal financial records be found?
  • Where is the safe deposit key? What are the contents of the deposit box?
  • How should personal items be handled such as: school papers, job-related documents, memorabilia, and collections?
  • Are there computer files that have important information stored in memory?
  • Where are important papers located? (Suggestion: Be specific. Note which filing cabinet and which drawer.)
  • Where is the most current tax return? Where are other returns from recent years stored?

Composing a Letter of Instructions should not be viewed as a depressing task. Rather, it can be considered a positive step to help family members cope with decision-making in a stressful period. In writing the letter, you are providing a valuable, loving service to your survivors. It gives everyone some peace of mind.

Clearly, one of the most important sections in the letter should cover the sensitive issues surrounding your funeral. This part should contain your wishes about the kind of service preferred, whether body organs should be donated, disposition of the body, and other matters that your family will face in the hours after a death. Write down your birthplace and the names of your father, mother, sisters, and brothers. Include information about your education, employment history, honors received, volunteer leadership positions; and any military record that might apply. Provide reference to a funeral plot that may have been purchased, the deed number, and location. Include the names of individuals who need to be notified upon your death. List telephone numbers and e-mail addresses for your circle of family, friends, and business colleagues.

Who is the best person to highlight the accomplishments of your life – you! Preparing your own obituary will alleviate a difficult task of your loved ones. Most obituaries include the location of your birth, highlights of your career history (including any special recognitions or educational accomplishments), and your surviving family members. Include a list of newspapers in which you would like to have your obituary published.

The letter should be stored in a place where family members have immediate access to its contents. Let your family know the whereabouts of the letter if you move it to a new location. Most important, keep it updated! Re-write sections of the letter when conditions change, when new financial decisions are made, or when your own personal views change. It is unlikely that you will think about every important topic when the document is first composed. Anticipate that you will want to add more topics down the road — another reason to save an electronic version.

This task is not something that just retirees should consider. Every adult needs to have a Letter of Instructions prepared. This could be one of the most important letters you will write in your entire lifetime! The document will take some time to complete, but it will well worth the effort – knowing you have performed a real service to your loved ones.

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