If you die, letter of intent will help family

The death of Michael Jackson, and the initial confusion over his will, got me to thinking: My husband and I are long overdue for updating ours.

Along with the updated will, we need to attach what professionals call a “letter of instruction.”

Jackson left behind three young children and a lot of debt, but also assets that may increase in value because of his death.

There was some doubt as to whether Jackson had a will. His mother, Katherine Jackson, asked a judge to appoint her executor of her son’s estate. But it turned out he did have a will naming his attorney and a longtime friend executors of the Michael Jackson Family Trust.

Had Jackson communicated his last wishes better, there would not have been such confusion. His 79-year-old mother could have avoided having to go to court at a time when she was mourning her great loss.

So let me ask you, who knows where to find your important documents in the event of your death? Will your relatives have to ransack your house to find your will, bank statements and retirement accounts? Will your death create chaos about your financial holdings?

Will your relatives have to worry about how to pay for the funeral because they can’t find your life insurance policy?

For most of us, our estates won’t be nearly as complicated or large as Jackson’s. Our estates are pretty simple. Nonetheless, you need to leave instructions of where to find the documents that leave a trail of your holdings.

A letter of instruction includes the names of who should be contacted in the event of your death and the whereabouts of all your essential documents, plus guardianship instructions should you still have underage children.

If you keep your letter on your computer, be sure to print a copy or save it to a CD or flash drive in case your computer can’t be accessed. And please, don’t be afraid to share the whereabouts of the letter with someone who has proven trustworthy — a relative, friend, attorney or the executor of your estate — because it is of little use if no one knows of its existence. You keep the letter. Just let someone know where you put it.

Consider the letter of instruction as a master list, detailing where you keep your financial documents. For example, write down that your will is in a lock box or safe-deposit box.

What should specifically be in this letter? In addition to directions about your will and any trust documents, include any information about, and the location of, the following:

  • Your life insurance policy or policies.

    Social Security or Veterans Affairs records.

    A complete list of your assets — liquid and illiquid. Liquid assets would include cash. Illiquid would include such property as your home — things that would have to be sold to produce cash. Periodically update the list of assets, perhaps at tax time. In fact, tax time is a good time to review your will and your letter of instruction.

    Documents relating to your assets — mortgage papers, vehicle titles, marriage certificate, divorce or separation papers, any military records, investment information, bank accounts and retirement plans.

    A list of any major debts outstanding, such as your home mortgage or car loans. Often after someone dies, creditors will contact the family.

    Sometimes the amount that the creditor claims is owed is incorrect. But how would you know without proof? Additionally, it’s important you know that unless you co-signed for such debt, you are not personally obligated to pay it. The estate is responsible for the debt if there is money or assets left.

  • The names of your lawyers and any professional advisers, including your accountant, broker and insurance agent.

    If you own a business, include documents related to it and a list of key employees who should be contacted.

    Washington Post Writers Group

    On the web

    Following is a list of Web sites where you can download for free either a template for a letter of instruction or detailed information about what the letter should include. You should tailor the letter to your specific situation.

    www.federalretirement.net/retiresamples.htm. The information here is intended for federal workers, but anyone can adopt this format.

    www.aarp.org. Search for “letter of instruction.”

    www.ohioline.osu.edu. Again, search for “letter of instruction.”

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