Broker Check

When a Will is not Enough

by Howard Hook, CFP®, CPA

As quoted in The Wall Street Journal, November 15, 2014

Where there’s a will, there’s a way—and sometimes an ugly family feud.

Families are consumed with grief when a loved one dies, but unfortunately certain legal and organizational tasks that arise can’t be ignored or put off for long. But you can ease the burden on your loved ones by making some simple preparations in addition to a will.

To head off bickering over your personal possessions, consider supplementing your will with a letter of instruction, an informal document that you can draft yourself, without the assistance of an attorney, according to AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons.

Unlike a will, the letter of instruction is not legally binding, but it can be a helpful road map for your family in your absence, and can provide more detail than is customary in a will.

Case in point: a 95-year-old Los Angeles resident who passed away recently, leaving such detailed instructions that her executors knew to send her high-school yearbooks to a former classmate and her photo albums to particular relatives. She was a client of Daniel B. Allen, estate-services specialist with Wells Fargo Private Bank, who says she left a letter of instruction for distribution of her possessions to more than 40 beneficiaries, saving her executors the stress of guesswork.

You might organize such a letter into three sections: funeral arrangements, financial and personal affairs, and distribution of personal effects.

Spell It Out
In the section covering funeral arrangements, include a list of people to notify upon your death, along with their contact information. Make sure also to include relevant organizations, government agencies such as the Social Security Administration, and professionals, such as your accountant, banker and attorney.

Here you should also specify your wishes as to organ or tissue donation (along with the recipient organization’s contact information), burial method and any details about your funeral service. If you’ve paid in advance for funeral arrangements, include that information, as well as the location of the burial plot or crypt and plot deed. If you wish to be cremated, indicate where you’d like your ashes placed.

If you’d like to designate a charitable organization to receive donations in your honor, do so in the letter of wishes. You might also consider outlining an obituary in advance, or at least providing relevant details in the letter.

Store this first section in a place where it is readily accessible, such as a drawer in your home with other personal papers, says Sally Hurme, an elder-law attorney with AARP. Make sure a family member or your executor knows where you keep it, she says.

The second section of the letter should provide up-to-date information for a family member or executor to put in order your personal financial affairs. Provide contact information for your employer, attorney, financial planner, insurance agent and stockbroker.

Give the location of personal documents in addition to your will, such as birth and marriage certificates, diplomas, military papers, citizenship/naturalization papers and any divorce or adoption papers. Also specify the location of car registration(s) and title(s).

List it All
List all financial accounts, including retirement accounts, stockholdings, pension and credit cards. Provide contact information for your account beneficiaries so that your executor can easily get in touch with them. Take this as an opportunity to ensure that your beneficiary designations are current: They will override provisions in your will if the two conflict, says Howard Hook, a certified financial planner with EKS Associates in Princeton, N.J.

Keep an up-to-date list of information about debts owed to you, and debts you owe—such as your mortgage, car loans or credit cards. List your computer passwords and passwords to online accounts, like or online bill pay. Make sure to update this list often, since passwords can change frequently. Give the location of safe-deposit or post-office boxes, including the institution’s address, as well as the location of the key or the combination.

Since it contains sensitive information, keep this second section of the document in a fireproof lock box in your home so that you can easily update it, Ms. Hurme says. The only people who should have the combination are you and your executor, she says.

Details Matter
And third, you can go into greater detail than is customary in a will in terms of allocating your possessions. Here’s where you can specify who gets the pots, pans, clothes and books. You might even consider writing individual notes to family members in addition to the general document.

You should also leave instructions for the care of your pets, says AARP.

Is it best to tell your heirs in advance what you plan to bequeath to them?

The jury is still out on that one. Some experts, like Mr. Hook of EKS Associates, recommend sitting down with your family—ideally, while you’re still in good health—and explaining how you intend to divide up your assets.

This way, Mr. Hook says, you can “identify areas of concern way ahead of time.” Or you might be pleasantly surprised at how issues resolve themselves.

For example, you might be agonizing over which child should inherit your summer home, only to find out during the family discussion that one child is interested in the home while the other isn’t, Mr. Hook says. Now it’s a no-brainer.

Other experts feel such conversations cause undue stress for the estate-holder during his or her lifetime.

Consider which approach would work best for your family, and make a conscious decision to follow one strategy or the other, Mr. Hook says, rather than keeping silent due to inertia.