One Thing to Make Easier on Your Kids

You won't be there to tell your heirs how to handle your death. A "letter of instruction" can help.

By Jean Chatzky, Money Magazine editor at large

(Money Magazine) -- A Mother's Day cookout, appropriately enough, was when I first heard about the "death letter." At least that's what Bonny Kramer, the mother of my next-door neighbor Jodie, called it.

"I started it two years ago," Bonny said, "after we had dinner with our attorney and we got to talking about the fact that people we knew were dying, their wives or children knew nothing about their finances and there would be a frantic search.

Editor-at-large Jean Chatzky appears regularly on NBC's Today. Contact her at

"He suggested writing a letter that includes all the important information. The last thing my girls need to worry about is who is the accountant and how do I get in touch with him."

Kramer has happened upon a trend. Estate planners say more people are writing letters like these to their next of kin. "We've been using them for 15 years," says Southfield, Mich. attorney and planner Timothy Wyman. "But they've become more popular in the past five years as baby boomers are reaching ages where they start to think about these issues."

There's even, thank heavens, a less morbid moniker: "letter of instruction," a helpful turn of phrase because if you write one, you want your children to open it in the case of a severe illness or disability, not just your ultimate demise.

The letter isn't a legal document. Think of it instead as a road map to those documents as well as to your financial life, and as a way to spell out any personal requests that aren't in your will.

And consider the letter a gift to your kids, says Susan Piver, author of "The Hard Questions for Adult Children and Their Aging Parents." "What you do with a letter is take doubt and questions about your personal affairs off the table for your loved ones."

What to think about

Here's what you should be thinking about as you set pen to paper or fingers to keyboard:

Be specific. Include the sort of end-of-life wishes you want the person who holds your health-care proxy to know. "Medical science is able to prolong life under conditions that would not have been considered even 25 years ago, so there is a real need to be clear," notes Piver. If you want certain prayers or music at your funeral, or that your body be treated a certain way, write it down.

Consider what not to write. Resist the temptation to unload and say all the nasty things you might have liked to say in life. You're writing to people you love.

Talk about it. Make sure your kids know the letter exists. And talk to them about why you've written it and what you hope they get from it. "Having the talk allows the other person to ask questions or get clarification," says Wyman.

Update it. Read the letter once a year to make sure it reflects any changes you've made in your financial life or in your thinking. Wyman suggests the day you file your taxes. Mother's (or Father's) Day seems right to me.

What to write

You can ease your children's burden if you include these specific items in a letter of instruction:

The location of:

  • Estate-planning documents (wills, trusts, powers of attorney)
  • Financial records, such as tax returns and deeds
  • Safe-deposit boxes (and their keys). If there's no safe-deposit box, say so.
  • Insurance policies

Policy/account numbers for:

  • Life insurance and long-term-care policies
  • Social Security
  • Banks, credit union and brokerage accounts (include online passwords)

Phone numbers for:

  • The people you do business with, including attorneys, accountants and financial planners.
  • Your funeral home, if you've already made arrangements. Include instructions about organ donation or your memorial service.
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