If you're looking for a way to simplify a complex inheritance structure for your heirs, or just want a way to stick it to Aunt Martha one last time, then a letter of instruction is what you need. Unlike a will, this letter doesn't have any legal authority, but it can provide an easy to understand explanation of your overall estate plan to your executor. It serves as a "cheat sheet" for anyone involved in settling your affairs and provides them with a ready point of reference. The great thing is that, because these letters aren't legal documents, you can include your own personal wishes and messages to your family.

In this article we'll take you through everything you should include in your letter of instruction and explain what it can and can't do for you. (To begin with the basics, read Getting Started On Your Estate Plan and Six Estate Planning Must-Haves.)

A Simple Remedy
One of the most important features of a letter of instruction, sometimes called a letter of intent, is it provides specific information regarding personal preferences in medical or funeral care or details concerning dispersion or care of personal assets that legal documents may not be able to outline. Letters of instruction can be used for many different things, but one of their main uses is simply to lead the person who must settle your estate through the process step by step in plain language that he or she can easily understand.

A good letter of instruction should contain at least the following information:

In the next section of the article we'll show you how you can use a letter of instruction to augment your regular will, or leave a personal message for your loved ones.

Make the Letter Your Own
This letter can also outline more personal desires, including such details as where you want to be buried and the kind of funeral that you want. You can specify location, funeral home or even what type of flowers you would like, or whether you would like your ashes to be displayed at the ceremony. You can use the letter to voice other personal requests that may be inappropriate for a will or trust, such as a general sentiment about how you would like your heirs to use their inherited assets. You could even tell your aunt that she better not wear the blue hat with the giant bird on it to your funeral.

Another advantage is you can use the letter to expand on your living will, elaborating on the medical conditions under which you would like to be taken off of life support in more detail than is permitted in a healthcare or medical power of attorney. Many people also include an ethical will inside this letter. An ethical will is a document that allows you to pass down your values, beliefs and ideals to your loved ones.

Remember, this type of letter does not have to meet any kind of legal format or other formal requirements; it can be handwritten on plain notebook paper and kept in a file drawer if you like. Anything goes in a letter of instruction; micromanagers can even use these letters as chance to write their own obituaries.

A letter of instruction provides an easy shortcut for those who will have to settle your affairs once you are gone. As with any other estate planning document, it should be updated at least annually and kept in a safe place where it is accessible by your relatives or executor. While this letter is not required in any technical sense, it can serve as a final gesture of consideration for those you have elected to settle your affairs.

For further reading on estate planning, check out Three Documents You Shouldn't Do Without.

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