Writing a Letter to Survivors

You can use a separate letter to leave thoughts, ideas, and feelings that do not belong in your will document.

When working on your will with Nolo’s Online Will, you may find that you want to explain certain things to your loved ones. For example, you may want to let them know why you left a large gift to charity, why you named your sister (and not your brother) to look after your child’s finances, or where you keep important papers or passwords. Or maybe you simply want to leave some thoughts about your life.

One simple way to convey these things is to write a letter that will be passed on to your loved ones when you die. The letter can be in any format you like, from a handwritten note to a more formal typed letter.

Why Use a Separate Letter

You should not do these things within the text of your will document because adding general information, personal statements, adjacent preferences, or reasons for making or not making a bequest, you risk the possibility of producing a document with conflicting, confusing or possibly even illegal provisions.

Fortunately, there is a way you can have a final say about personal matters without seriously risking your will's legal integrity. You can write a letter to accompany your will expressing your thoughts to those who survive you.

Because what you put in the letter will not have legal effect as part of your will, there is little danger that your expressions will tread upon the legal language of the will or cause other problems later. In fact, if your will is ambiguous and your statement in the letter sheds some light on your intentions, judges may use the letter to help clarify your will. However, if your statements in the letter fully contradict provisions in your will, you may create interpretation problems after your death. For example, if you cut your daughter out of your will and also state in a letter attached to the will that she is your favorite child and that is why you are leaving her the family home, you are setting the stage for future confusion.

Keeping these cautions in mind, writing a letter to those who survive you to explain why you wrote your will as you did -- and knowing they will read your reasoning at your death -- can give you a great deal of peace of mind during life. It may also help explain potential slights and hurt feelings of surviving friends and family members.

What to Include In Your Letter

What to include in your letter is completely up to you. It can be short or long, whimsical or to the point. Here are some ideas about what you might include:

  • An introduction. More than just a nicety, it’s a good idea to begin your letter stating that it is simply an expression of sentiment and that you do not intend it to be your will.
  • An explanation about why certain gifts were made. You may want to explain why you left a gift to one person, instead of another
  • An explanation about disparities in gifts. You may want to explain why you left more to one person than another.
  • Suggestions for shared gifts. If you left a gift to a group of people, you may have creative suggestions about how to divide it.
  • Positive or negative sentiments. You may want to leave some last words.
  • A statement in support of your relationship. If you’re in a same-sex relationship, you may wish to explain the nature of your relationship to your family or to the court.
  • An explanation about your pet. You may want to explain how you decided to whom you left your pet.
  • Information about your digital assets. Leaving login names and passwords will help your executor access your digital assets.
  • General thoughts about life. Any final thoughts you want to pass on to your loved ones.

Ethical Wills: Describing Personal Experiences and Values

In addition to the topics listed above, many people choose to leave behind a substantial statement about the experiences, values, and beliefs that have shaped their lives. This kind of letter or document is often known as an "ethical will," and it can be of great worth to those who survive you.

While you could legally include an ethical will statement in your regular will -- that is, the one you make to leave your property to others -- we recommend that you include these sentiments in your explanatory letter or in a separate document. The reasons are the same as those mentioned earlier: It's better to avoid including anything potentially confusing or ambiguous in your legal will.

As long as you don't contradict the provisions of your legal will, your options for expressing yourself are limited only by the time and energy you have for the project. You could do something as simple as use your explanatory letter to set out a concise description of your basic values. Or, if you feel inspired, you may leave something much more detailed for your loved ones. Many survivors are touched to learn about important life stories, memories, and events. You might also consider including photographs or other mementos with your letter. If writing things down seems like too much effort, you could use an audio or video to talk to those who are closest to you. A little thought will surely yield many creative ways to express yourself to those you care for.

Searching the internet for “ethical will” will produce some guidance to get you started.

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