What is a letter of wishes and how is it different to a Will?
A Letter of Wishes is a document that accompanies your Will. It is not legally binding but can guide your Executors and Trustees to ensure your personal wishes are carried out.
The purpose of a letter of wishes is to support the Will and aid the persons dealing with your estate. It therefore should not contain anything that conflicts with your Will. The letter can cover any aspect of your estate, such as funeral wishes or the distribution of your personal items, and it can also provide longer term guidance with regards to on-going trusts established on your death.
One benefit of a letter of wishes is that you can update and alter it at any time to reflect any changes in your circumstances. It doesn’t have to be formally drawn up or witnessed, so it’s easy to review. This can be helpful if, for example, you have a long list of specific items that you wish to give to various people.
Another benefit is that unlike a Will, a letter of wishes does not become a public document after your death and therefore it allows you to keep some information private. For example you may be cutting someone out of your will but don’t like the idea of airy your dirty laundry in public – a letter of wishes allows you to state your reasons and will act as further evidence should your Executors require it, but will not be out there in the public domain.
It is particularly important to prepare a letter of wishes where executors and/or trustees have discretion to make decisions, as knowing your intentions will help them when exercising their powers.
The letter can advise on anything, but most common uses include:
• Who to notify of your death, or in some cases, who not to tell.
• The style of funeral you want, whether you want burial or cremation, and any specific instructions regarding the service, where you would like to be buried or have your ashes sprinkled.
• Listing your main assets, including bank accounts, life insurance policies, expensive items or jewellery and their location, which will help your executors in the administration of your estate. These items should also be included in your Will, as the Letter of Wishes is not legally binding.
• Guiding your executors or trustees on how you would like any money managed, or trusts created in your Will to be run. Where trusts are involved, you could include details relating to the main beneficiaries and your wishes about when to make payments. You can also include your thoughts on how long the trust should continue.
• Advising guardians on how you would like your children to be raised, their religious upbringing, education, and where they live. These details should be reviewed as the children grow up.
• Giving more detailed information to help your executors identify specific items you are giving away in your Will.
• Providing explanations as to why you have excluded someone from the Will, if you think that it may be a controversial decision or challenged later.
• Details of how you would like your personal items to be distributed after your death, such as jewellery, furniture, clothing and photographs.
A letter of wishes should be written in plain English, signed and dated, but not witnessed to avoid any claim that it has become a legal Will or codicil.
It is important to remember that a letter is wishes is exactly as it implies, that is, an expression of wish – it is not legally binding. Therefore, if you want your instructions to be legally binding, they should be included in your Will.
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