Think of your executor as the co-pilot of your assets; when you are no longer able to captain your affairs, she takes over the controls and administers the estate through probate. Many people identify the person to administer their estate in their written will. If you do so, it also makes sense to leave a letter to assist your chosen executor to locate beneficiaries, identify assets and verify debt. This kind of verbal map of your holdings enables the executor to facilitate probate and wind up your estate as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Understand that a letter of instruction to your executor does not alter your will. Rather, its purpose is to assist the executor in administering your estate and guide him in understanding your wishes. Use the first paragraph of the letter to describe your purpose in writing the letter.
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Draft a paragraph describing your wishes regarding final arrangements that do not involve your assets. Include instructions about funeral arrangements, burial site and any organ or other anatomical donations. If you wish mourners to send donations to a favorite charity instead of flowers, identify the charity here.
Identify persons the executor should notify of your death. Include family members, close friends and business associates, including your attorney. Provide contact information for each person, as well as any final message or instructions to be given.
Describe your important estate documents and their exact location. The documents you name will vary depending upon your holdings, but should include your latest will, investment account statements, property title and mortgages, stocks and bonds, and retirement plan statements. Include legal papers documenting marriages, divorces, separations, naturalizations, and adoptions.
List bank accounts, life insurance policies, and safety deposit boxes. If you hold any of the assets jointly with another person, list that person's name, her relationship to you and her contact information. For insurance policies, include the name and address of the company, insurance policy number and the contact information for the insurance agent.
Tell your executor about your debts. For debts on which you make periodic payments, such as a mortgage, credit card and automobile loans, include the payment amount and name and address of the creditor.
Include any other important information relevant to your estate. Think carefully about your holdings and insert in your letter any information that will help your executor handle your estate when you die. Consider including a final paragraph thanking the executor for her service, and sign and date the letter. Leave the letter with your important papers, or give a copy to the executor for safekeeping.
Do not try to change or amend your will in the letter to your executor. The confusion you create can negate any benefit from the letter.
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.