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Expert Perspective

News, research and market insights from our team of experts.

e.Insight

Current Issue | September 14, 2017

Providing Guidance to Your Survivors

By: Daniel Meiklejohn J.D., CPA, Family Office Technical Strategist


Have you ever encountered a day where you cannot find your car keys or iPhone while in a hurry to make an important last-minute meeting across town? On top of that, you are not prepared and need to access a confidential document stored online but cannot remember the log-in information. Now imagine that feeling of anxiety, stress and frustration while also recently receiving the news about the passing of a loved one. Grieving the loss of a loved one is one of the tougher periods to get through in our lives, especially if tasked with administering the estate.

Estate and incapacity documents, such as a Will, Durable Power of Attorney or a Revocable Trust, among others, are commonly executed to provide legal guidance on the administration of an estate and trust. However, having all necessary estate and incapacity documents executed and in place does not always guarantee a smooth experience and transition. Oftentimes, the missing information or guidance that would help minimize the occurrence of a stressful experience or expedite the process for the survivors could be expressed and documented in a Letter of Final Instruction.

Alleviating any unintended consequences or obstacles through proactive guidance and communication can provide a significant benefit to your surviving loved ones. A Letter of Final Instruction is intended to communicate a comprehensive list of pertinent information as well as express your feelings and answer questions around who, what, where, how and why. The document is not legally binding and is generally drafted in a conversational tone as if you were having an informal discussion with your loved ones.

Common types of key information that may be included in a Letter of Final Instruction, or may be documented alongside one, include but are not limited to the following:

  • Contact information for key family members/close friends, funeral director, key advisors and other key professional contacts
  • Contact information for employer or business partner(s)
  • Contact and/or location information for organizations of which you are a member
  • Appropriate state and federal government agencies to contact
  • Most recent sources of income, living expenses and tax information
  • Comprehensive personal financial statement
  • Guidance on obtaining immediate liquidity to make ongoing payments for bills and other continued obligations
  • Summary of automatic bill payments, deposits and other asset transfers
  • Details of any critical and urgent contractual obligation to be continued post death
  • Retirement plan and life insurance records
  • Social Security and Medicare records
  • Summary of online memberships, web log-ins and passwords
  • Any other relevant personal information helpful in winding up affairs and estate administration

The more transparent you are about your personal, financial, business and online information, the greater your chances of a smooth estate administration and transition. In addition to the comprehensive list of data, the Letter of Final Instruction helps set forth the steps to be taken, whom to contact for specific reasons, the decisions that will have to be made and whom to call for help about deciding on those matters. Furthermore, it’s a valuable mechanism to tell a surviving spouse what to do rather than just describing a decision he or she will have to make and giving some criteria for making the decision. It’s crucial to identify a “trusted advisor” who will coordinate the activities of other advisors, while giving the surviving spouse some ground rules for dealing with advisors. As with all documents that pertain to your personal and financial affairs, the Letter of Final Instruction requires a commitment to keep it current and complete. We recommend providing a copy of your letter of instruction to your trusted advisor and any other trusted family members or close friends.

By spending time to assess and gather your personal information in an effort to then organize all the details into a formal Letter of Final Instruction, you may have saved your survivors significant hardship and unintended stress. The focus needs to be on celebrating your loved one’s life and a successful transition, not on the struggle of trying to figure out log-in credentials in order to pay a bill or to identify an important document or asset that needs to be located, accessed and distributed. Taking the time now to get items organized and documented can save an abundance of time down the road when your loved ones need it the most.