Scott Law Firm recommends that its estate-planning clients prepare a “Letter of Last Instructions” in addition to a will or trust. Such a letter should not only tell survivors where to find the will or trust and other important papers, but also provide other information that will help survivors handle the myriad details that arise when a person dies.
We recommend making several copies of the Letter of Last Instructions after it has been prepared and providing them to expected survivors, and the estate-planning attorney if desired, in sealed envelopes with instructions to open the envelopes only upon death.
Following is a checklist of items to consider mentioning in a Letter of Last Instructions:
- Tell where copies of your will and/or trust can be found and where the originals are kept. Also give the names, addresses and telephone numbers of all personal representatives, executors, trustees, lawyers or guardians involved, and explain any potentially puzzling provisions that the documents may contain.
- List essential papers and records and tell where they can be found. Your marriage certificate is important; so are birth certificates and (if you have them) citizenship papers, divorce or separation documents, and military service papers.
- Tell where your safe deposit box is, what it contains, who has access to it, and where the keys are.
- Describe where the family burial plot is and where the deed is located. You can also outline the sort of funeral you want and any funeral arrangements you have already made.
- Provide information about your insurance policies. It is necessary to do more than simply list life insurance policies. Provide such details as the location of the policies, premium receipts and dividend statements. Have you borrowed against any of your policies? If so, which ones, and how much has been repaid? If you have any annuities, write down where the contracts can be found. Do you own a policy on anyone else’s life? Does anyone own one on yours? Don’t forget company group insurance. Who is your life insurance agent? What should your beneficiary do with the insurance check? You should also mention any medical or disability insurance that might cover medical bills charged to the estate.
- List your bank accounts and describe where checkbooks and passbooks can be found. In addition, you should mention which accounts are jointly held and who has the power to sign checks or make withdrawals. Above all, tell your spouse and executor where they can get quick cash — there will be some immediate expenses after your death.
- Give the names and addresses of your employers, both past and present, and outline the various employee-benefit plans you’ve belonged to, such as company group life insurance policies, profit-sharing schemes, retirement funds. Also, list any fraternal organizations or unions you have belonged to. They may provide death benefits or burial expenses. In addition, give your Social Security Number.
- Put down all the relevant details about your house or other real estate. If you own your home, is the deed in your name or your spouse’s, or both? What bank holds the mortgage? Where is the deed? Where is a copy of the mortgage papers? Other papers you should locate are the title abstract, the title insurance policy, homeowners insurance policies, and any surveys of the property that may have been made. If you own real estate in addition to your house, give the same information about it, along with the names of your real estate and insurance brokers.
- List the stocks, bonds, mutual funds and other investments you own and tell where the certificates and other records are kept. State when you bought them and how much you paid — this information could have a big effect on estate taxes. For the same reason, distinguish the investments purchased by you from those bought by your spouse, or bought for your children and registered in their names. If you have ever pledged an investment as security for a loan, mention that. List any U.S. Savings Bonds you hold and name the beneficiaries. Give the names and addresses of your investment brokers.
- List all your personal property and how you would like it distributed if you have not done so in your Will or Separate Written Statement authorized in your will—but keep in mind that your instructions will not be binding unless included in the Will or Separate Written Statement. With respect to items such as your car, tell where the title and registration are, and give instructions about transfer of ownership if it is not jointly owned. List home furnishings and valuables. Give details of insurance coverage and the name and address of the insurance agent. If any of the property is jointly owned, specify.
- Make a list of the debts you owe and the debts that other persons owe to you. Tell precisely how you want these matters settled, including whether you want to forgive any debts owed to you.
- Tell where to locate copies of your past tax returns, where current tax information can be found, and generally give a brief account of how you stand with the Internal Revenue Service and state tax authorities.
- List any trusts under which you are named as a beneficiary, or any trusts set up by others under which your heirs are beneficiaries. Give the names and addresses of all persons involved, including attorneys.
- List the names, addresses and telephone numbers of your parents, if living, and of any other relatives or close friends who should be notified of your death. Also give the names and addresses of your employer and any close associates at work.
- Give the names and addresses of any lawyers, accountants, brokers and the like not already mentioned who might be helpful to your survivors.
- Provide logins and passwords for online accounts.
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