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The Missing Link in Your Estate Plan


There’s no doubt that many Baby Boomers are planning for the future — 56% have a will, for example, according to a 2011 survey by Rocket Lawyer — but even the savviest among them may overlook one crucial element in their estate plan: a letter of final instruction. “It’s the ‘missing link’ in estate planning,” says Leon LaBrecque, managing partner and founder of LJPR LLC. “It’s something most people don’t have.”

This letter of instruction is a non-legally-binding document that provides your family with guidance upon your death on little things that wouldn’t necessarily go into a legal document. So, for example, this document might help them with contact information for your friends that you’d like notified upon your death; passwords and PIN numbers for your banks accounts or computer; the location of important documents like your birth and marriage certificates, insurance policies and deeds; or funeral details. Basically, you should include anything that your heirs might want or need to know that wasn’t outlined in your estate plan; this list provides further detail on what to include. “It answers the questions that the rest of your estate plan don’t,” LaBrecque says.

Of course, this letter of instruction is just a small part of your overall estate plan. You still need legal documents like a will, living will, health-care proxy, and a durable power of power of attorney for financial reasons and health care reasons. And the letter of instruction is not legally binding, so it may not hold up in court in the event of an estate dispute among heirs.

Still, experts say it’s worth considering writing one, even if it’s just to help your heirs avoid hassles. “It can save your family a lot of stress and confusion,” says LaBrecque. “It helps with the ‘who, what, when, where’ that might not otherwise get answered.”  Just be sure to store it somewhere that your heirs can easily access it upon your death. LaBrecque recommends making copies of the document and giving them to your attorney and anyone else who will be handling your estate upon your death.

Click here for a template for a letter of final instruction.


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About Encore

  • Encore examines the changing nature of retirement, from new rules and guidelines for financial security to the shifting identities and priorities of today’s retirees. The blog also explores news that affects retirement, from the Wall Street Journal Digital Network and around the web. Lead bloggers are reporter Catey Hill and senior editor Jeremy Olshan. Other contributors include The Wall Street Journal’s retirement columnists Glenn Ruffenach and Anne Tergesen; the Director for the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, Alicia Munnell; and the Director of Research for Pinnacle Advisory Group, Michael Kitces, CFP.