Writing a will is for strictly legal tasks like naming your executor, beneficiaries for property, and guardians for children. However, as you make your will, you may find that you also wish to:
You should not do these things within the text of your will document because adding general information, personal statements, 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. This chapter offers some guidance on how you can write a clear letter that expresses your wishes without jeopardizing the legality of your will.
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:
Get specific examples for writing your letter in How to Write an Explanatory Letter.
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.
Learn more about Making a Will and Wills, Trusts & Probate.
Make your will, living trust, healthcare directive, durable power of attorney for finances, and letter to survivors with Quicken Willmaker & Trust.