It's important to leave a will, but many people are finding it's just as important to leave a letter to their loved ones. It like anything else, has an art to it. Here's how to craft your letter to leave a legacy that will be a good final reflection of you.
As will covers legal bases, but most likely there are practical questions that are not addressed in the will, which isn't meant to be a document to share final thoughts you may want to leave for family or friends. For example, a will includes broad guidelines about who you want to receive your personal property, “ I leave my personal property to my children to divide among themselves as they mutually agree,” explains Barry Taylor, a certified financial planner with Integral Financial Solutions. However, he says if they don't agree you may cause unintended conflict among your children. In a letter though, you can be specific not only about who gets what but why, if you wish. It's intensely personal.
A letter of final instruction is a non-legally binding document that provides guidance to your family about your after-death wishes that are normally not part of a legal document, explains Mitch Adel, senior partner with the elder law firm of Cooper, Adel and Associates. Some have called the letter the “missing link” in estate planning. “Your letter can be a valuable part of the communication process with those you leave behind, letting them know vital information and clarifying your intentions at what can be a difficult and stressful time,” says Adel.
Increasingly, people are using such tools. “There is definitely an increase with this kind of letter because the Baby Boomers are getting older,” says David Harris, CEO of Assets in Order, and creator of the Legacy Lockbox, an online service, (www.assetsinorder.com).
The big question though, is what to say, and what not to say?
No detail is too small. “Think of it as a guide – a roadmap to help your family through a tough process,” says Adel. The letter can include names and addresses of friends who should be contacted, your wishes about funeral arrangements, bank and computer passwords and PIN numbers and even the location of other important documents such as insurance policies and deeds, including relevant financial information can help alleviate any unnecessary worries for your survivors from the get-go, says Adel.
Know that there is no right or wrong answer to what's appropriate or not, much depends on you and your relationships. The trend is typically to have a hand written letter. It may be left with the attorney for an old-fashioned formal reading of the will ceremony, other times the letter may be left with the individual's important documents in their home, explains George Cassar, a shareholder specializing in estate law with the firm of Maddin, Hauser, Wartell, Roth & Heller.
He's seen clients prefer to leave separate letters of notes to each individual recipient while some will leave one general letter. Include whatever is meaningful to you – whether it's outlining instructions to keep family keepsakes safe, or stating how important that person has been to you, says Harris.
As part of the Legacy Lockbox there is a “My Wishes” section, which allows members to write notes and include instructions for their loved ones to receive email after the account holder passes. The notes can contain anything from a heartfelt letter of goodbye to straightforward pet directives for continued pet care. Only the specified individual gets the information. Under the “Digital Assets” section, the account holder can also upload a video for loved ones to view after they're gone.
What you don't want to do, says Cassar, “Is trying to have the final word. The letter would not be a good place to air grievances or remind recipients how bad they treated you. A simple I love you message with a memorable goodbye would be the most appropriate.”
Some new trends include leaving a video of the individual or the family where the individual themselves is recording a video message or even an audio message. “I am aware of at least one company that has taken it a step further and is providing QR codes that can be engraved on an individual's headstone or tombstone so that visitors to their grave can scan the QR code and be taken to a link that provides either an audio message or video for a website,” says Cassar.
You want to be sure however, that the letter ends up in the right hands. Says Adel,“Giving a copy to your attorney and your estate planning team means that your wishes won't get lost in the shuffle. The last thing you want is for your family to have to guess at your intentions.”
Do review your letter periodically and keep it in a safe place that is easily accessible says Julie Cook, a certified financial advisor with Savant Capital Management.
While a letter serves a purpose, it does not replace a comprehensive plan, says Adel. “It's not a substitute for good planning.” It is though, a good way to say goodbye.