Whether you have written a will or established a trust, you may wish to provide detailed instructions on how your last wishes should be carried out. A “letter of instruction” is an informal estate planning document that can convey your preferences to loved ones and beneficiaries. California Estate Planning Lawyer Kavesh Minor & Otis

The Letter of Instruction

People often do not understand the difference between a will and a letter of instruction. You can consider a letter of instruction a complement to a more comprehensive estate planning document such as a will or revocable living trust. The letter of instruction can help your loved ones locate your assets, and it can help them disburse inheritances designated by a will or a trust, too.

However, a letter of instruction does not carry the weight of law. While a will is a legally binding document, and a trust is a legally binding agreement, a letter of instruction is comparably informal, meant to be used by your family members, estate executor, or successor trustee.

Consequently, your letter of instruction can be worded plainly. Since it is not a legal probate or trust document, it does not have to fulfill any particular criteria to be useful.

What Goes into a Letter of Instruction

Your letter of instruction should provide specific information, addressing your preferences for end-of-life medical care, funeral proceedings, and the disbursement of personal affects and assets. Sometimes, letters of instructions include detailed instructions for the estate representative, too.

Ideally, your letter of instruction should include at least the following information:

  • A complete list of your assets
  • A complete list of accounts with named beneficiaries or payable-upon-death designations
  • A complete list of your insurance coverages, especially life insurance coverages and associated beneficiaries
  • The location of property deeds, vehicle titles, and other legal documents needed to settle your estate
  • The names of any creditors such as a bank holding a mortgage or car loan
  • The names and contact information of those authorized to manage your assets such as an estate planning attorney, wealth management professional, or stockbroker

Including all these items in your letter of instruction will make closing your estate and disbursing inheritances easier. However, you should remember that your letter of instruction is not a formal estate planning document. Since a letter of instruction cannot replace a will or trust, it should not:

  • Name heirs
  • Name beneficiaries
  • Name a guardian for your children or pets
  • Condition the disbursal of any funds, accounts, or assets
  • Grant anyone power of attorney for any reason

What to Discuss With Your Estate Planning Attorney

Before you consider drafting a letter of instruction, you should already have begun building the foundations of an estate plan. If you do not have an estate plan, your letter of instruction will do nothing to help your family avoid probate.

Additionally, a letter of instruction is not always necessary—or even desirable. If your estate plan is likely to need adjustment in the coming years, you may not wish to draft a permanent letter of instruction, since it would have to be changed to reflect any alterations you make at a later date.

Your estate planning attorney can help construct the best estate plan for your needs. They can also advise you on the best way to structure your letter of instruction, so that it may serve as a comprehensive guide to your loved ones.

Do You Need To Speak With An Attorney About Estate Planning?

If you need to speak with an experienced estate planning lawyer please contact us online or call us directly at 800.756.5596 to first register for one of our free, informative seminars. Your attendance will qualify you for a special discount for our estate planning services should you decide to make a free appointment at the conclusion of the seminar and choose to proceed with us. We proudly serve clients throughout California with offices in Torrance, Newport Beach, Orange, Woodland Hills and Pasadena.


Philip J. Kavesh
Nationally recognized attorney helping clients with customized estate planning guidance for over 40 years.