Fall-Winter 2008: A Priceless Gift

by Valerie Friedman

I believe that it is our responsibility to our loved ones to prepare what is referred to as a “letter of final instruction”. It provides someone who would have to step into our shoes with all the information they need to handle our affairs if we are unable to do so, because of disability or death. You might ask why this is necessary if you have been responsible and have prepared a will and other estate planning documents. The will does, indeed, describe how assets are to be distributed, but that assumes  the executor knows the whereabouts of all assets. Without this letter of final instructions, it could be very time consuming and expensive to reconstruct everything one would need to know to make sure that all affairs are properly handled. This letter is an adjunct to the will.

But it is also much more. It covers areas such as insurance coverage and contact information, location of safe deposit boxes, funeral arrangements, professional advisors, location of important papers, mortgage and other credit details, location and ownership of investment and bank accounts and real estate, etc. This information does not appear in a will, nor is professional assistance required to prepare the letter of final instructions. All it takes is a willingness to spend the time to accomplish the task.

I experienced first hand the importance of a letter of instructions when my mother’s stroke left her incapacitated and left me — in a flash — responsible for managing her affairs. Fortunately, my mother had such a document prepared, and I was able to take over easily. I then prepared one for myself, and have kept it updated ever since. I give copies to people close to me, and every year, I make it a point to update the document to reflect the changes in my life.

The first letter you prepare is a daunting task, because there is so much information to organize. I suggest you wait for a long and rainy day, because it will take time. The annual revisions are much easier, especially if you save the information on your computer. You can tailor the information to your own needs, but the point is to get it done, distribute copies to your loved ones, and keep it updated regularly.

I urge you to take this seriously, because it is our duty not to dump this onerous task on those we care about. It is a time consuming task and we are the ones with access to the information. Imagine what the task means to our loved ones, who in a time of crisis are desperately trying to reconstruct our lives, likely with the assistance of professionals who are being paid handsomely for their time. And all of these problems can be avoided, if we give our loved ones the gift of preparing for a time when we cannot take care of our own affairs.