A detailed, informative letter can be invaluable to those you have designated to carry out your wishes after you’re gone, says the article “Why You Should Write a Letter to Your Executor—and What to Say in It” from The Wall Street Journal. Your last will and testament or living trust does have many directions. However, there may be things you want your executor or trustee to know that may not be included in your will or living trust. This is especially important if death is sudden. The letter, which you should sign and date, can help prevent potential disputes by minimizing any confusion around your intentions, priorities and goals.
One thing to keep in mind when writing out instructions is that, if you have a will-based estate plan, the executor is charged with the responsibility of paying your debts and final expenses and then distributing the remaining assets to the beneficiaries. So the executorship is really a relatively short-term position. If you have a trust-based estate plan, it is your successor trustee who has these duties.
Because the executor has no control over your assets after they are distributed to your beneficiaries, a letter of instruction will be most helpful if you have created trusts for your beneficiares in your will or living trust. Think of the trustee of these trusts as being involved long-term. That said, there may be situations when a letter to the executor would be very helpful. For example, a letter could explain why you have decided to treat beneficiaries differently in your estate plan.
Here are some things to consider when drafting a letter to your executor or trustee.
Your thoughts about wealth. Share your story about how you came to the assets that you are leaving in your will. How was your wealth created, what do you value and what are your long-term goals for your wealth? Do you want family members to invest the assets, so they grow over generations, or do you want them used for college education costs for grandchildren?
Describe key players in the family. It is best if your executor or trustee knows the members of your family. However, they may not know the family dynamics or history. Giving them your insights, may help them anticipate issues. Does one child tend to take over and speak for everyone, without being asked? Are there substance abuse issues in the family that need to be considered? Share your concerns, so your executor or trustee can be mindful of how the family works (or doesn’t) as a unit.
What matters to you? This is especially important, if you don’t want your beneficiaries to be dependent upon their inheritance, instead of becoming self-reliant. Share your values to encourage their earned success. Make it clear if you want to protect the family wealth, so it can be used to empower future generations and for family members to be responsible for their own financial well-being. Evidence of your intent will help a trustee if a beneficiary challenges the way a trustee is managing and making distributions from the trust.
Give your trustee the power to make decisions, even when that means saying no. Considering the size of your wealth and the family members who are your beneficiaries, you probably have a good idea of who would do what with their inheritance. If you don’t want your wealth to be used for a start-up by a son whose financial management capabilities are questionable, say so in the letter to your trustee. If you are hopeful that a daughter will use her inheritance for a down payment on a home for her family, you should also express that.
A good estate plan is not just about who gets what and when. A good estate plan is one which tries to minimize conflict and promotes the values you hold dear. That’s why it’s important to consult with an experienced estate planning attorney who has worked with many families and who understands the challenges and pitfalls that are presented any time wealth is transferred from one generation to the next.
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Reference: The Wall Street Journal (April 8, 2020) “Why You Should Write a Letter to Your Executor—and What to Say in It”