Leaving an explanatory letter can be a meaningful and safe way to express sentiments that don’t belong in your will. Learn more about Writing a Will: Explanatory Letters.
Here are some ideas and examples for writing an explanatory letter.
A formal introduction to the letter you leave can help make it clear that what you write is an expression of your sentiments and not intended as a will -- or an addition to or interpretation of your will.
After the introduction, you are free to express your sentiments, keeping in mind that your estate may be held liable for any false, derogatory statements you make about an individual or organization.
To My Executor:
This letter expresses my feelings and reasons for certain decisions made in my will. It is not my will, nor do I intend it to be an interpretation of my will. My will, which I signed, dated and had witnessed on __________________, is the sole expression of my intentions concerning all my property and other matters covered in it.
Should anything I say in this letter conflict with, or seem to conflict with, any provision of my will, the will shall be followed.
I request that you give a copy of this letter to each person named in my will to take property, or act as a guardian or custodian, and to anyone else you determine should receive a copy.
Explaining Why Gifts Were Made
In a will, it is a good idea to keep descriptions of property and beneficiaries short and succinct. But this may leave you unsatisfied. You may have thought hard and long about why you want a particular person to get particular property -- and feel frustrated that you are constrained in your will to listing your wishes in a few simple words. You can remedy that by explaining your feelings in a letter.
The gift of my fishing boat to my friend Hank is in remembrance of the many companionable days we enjoyed fishing together on the lake. Hank, I hope you're out there for many more years.
Julie, the reason I have given you the farm is that you love it as much as I do and I know you'll do your best to make sure it stays in the family. But please, if the time comes when personal or family concerns mean that it makes sense to sell it, do so with a light heart -- and knowing that it's just what I would have done.
Learn more about Your Family’s Right to Inherit.
Explaining Disparities in Gifts
You may also wish to explain your reasons for leaving more property to one person than another. While it is certainly your prerogative to make or not make bequests as you wish, you can also guess that in a number of family situations, unbalanced shares may cause hurt feelings or hostility after your death.
Ideally, you could call those involved together during your life, explaining to them why you plan to leave your property as you do. However, if you wish to keep your property plans private until after you die -- or would find such a meeting too painful or otherwise impossible -- you can attach a letter of explanation to your will.
I love all my children equally. The reason I gave a smaller ownership share in the house to Tim than to my other children is that Tim received family funds to purchase his own home, so it is fair that my other two children receive more of my property now.
I am giving the bulk of my property to my son Jason for one reason: Because of his health problems, he needs it more.
Ted and Ellen, I love you just as much, and I am extremely proud of the life choices you have made. But the truth is that you two can manage fine without a boost from me, and Jason cannot.
Offering Suggestions for Shared Gifts
If you are leaving a shared gift that contains a number of specific items -- such as "my household furnishings" or "my art collection" -- you may have some thoughts on how you'd like your beneficiaries to divide up the property. Of course, you can use your will to control the size of the share that each beneficiary gets, but that that still leaves your survivors to figure out who gets which specific assets. For example, if you leave your entire estate to be shared equally by your three children, how should your executor decide who gets the house, who gets the bank accounts and who gets the cars?
You can use a letter to make suggestions to your executor about how you want your property divided. Your suggestions will not have any legal weight; your executor is required to follow the terms of your will, not the terms of your letter. However, your letter can give your executor valuable guidance about how to distribute property, within the terms of your will.
Even if you don't particularly care who gets which things, you may want to suggest a fair way of figuring it out, such as a lottery for the highly coveted items.
Whatever suggestions you give, be very careful not to contradict any of the gifts you make in your will.
I have left my library equally to my grandchildren. I know each of them has enjoyed many of the books over the years and I want to make sure that each receives a few favorites. I suggest that you hold a drawing to determine the order in which each grandchild will choose a book, with each then taking a volume in turn until their favorites are spoken for. The rest of the library can be distributed -- taken or given away -- in whatever manner they choose.
Expressing Positive or Negative Sentiments
Whatever your plans for leaving your property, you may wish to attach a letter to your will in which you clear your mind of some sentiments you formed during life. These may be positive -- thanking a loved one for kind acts. Or they may be negative -- explaining why you are leaving a person out of your will.
The reason I left $10,000 to my physician Dr. Buski is not only that she treated me competently over the years, but that she was unfailingly gentle and attentive. I always appreciated that she made herself available -- day or night -- and took the time to explain my ailments and treatments to me.
I am leaving nothing to my brother Malcolm. I wish him no ill will. But over the years, he has decided to isolate himself from me and the rest of the family and I don't feel I owe him anything.
Supporting Your Same-Sex Relationship
If you and your partner are married or in a registered domestic partnership and you’ve since moved to a state that doesn't recognize your marriage or partnership, you may want to attach a signed letter to your will that expresses your wish that your partner be treated in all ways as your legal spouse or partner. This letter won't change how your property is distributed by your will, but it will make your intention clear. The note is simply a way to avoid confusion by stating that you were legally married or partnered and you desire to be treated legally as a couple. It can be as brief as the sample below, or you can write more if you'd like to express your feelings about your relationship or its legal status.
Jennifer Jones and I were legally married on March 12, 2007, in the state of Massachusetts. In 2009, we moved to Kansas, which does not currently recognize our marriage. No matter where we live, I consider Jennifer my legal spouse, and it is my wish that she be treated for all purposes, including inheritance, as my legal spouse.
Learn more about legal issues for same-sex couples on Nolo’s center for LGBT Law.
Explaining Choices About Your Pet
The best way to provide a home for your pet is to use your will to name a caretaker for your pet and leave some money to that person to cover the costs of your pet's care. If you like, you can use your explanatory letter to say why you chose a particular person to watch over your animals after your death.
I have left my dog Cessna to my neighbor Belinda Mason because she has been a loving friend to him, taking care of him when I was on vacation or unwell. I know that Belinda and her three children will provide a caring and happy home for Cessna when I no longer can.
Learn more about Pets and Estate Planning.
Use Quicken Willmaker Plus to use your will to leave your pet to a loving caretaker. With WillMaker, you can also make a healthcare directive, durable power of attorney for finances, final arrangements, and many other useful documents.