Most people recognize the value and importance of leaving behind a valid will to ensure their estate is divided according to their wishes. In addition to this legal document, however, many people also choose to write another document to provide additional context and information for their heirs, known as an explanatory letter.
To clarify the content of your will, consider adding a letter prefacing your will in which you provide information regarding the inheritance of your estate or emotional reasoning for your decisions. In your explanatory letter, you (the testator or owner of the will) will have the chance to provide an explanation for your last wishes regarding your estate.
How To Write an Explanatory Letter for Your Will
Sometimes, there might be some information that you wish to convey to your loved ones which cannot be included in the will. This information can be expressed in an explanatory letter for your will. Many testators may desire to include an explanatory letter when writing their will but need help figuring out how to start. Setting the following goals and intentions for your explanatory letter will ensure your loved ones, heirs, and beneficiaries are given any necessary context to understand the bequests in your last will and testament.
1. Begin With an Introduction
First, begin your explanatory letter with an introduction. The introduction will specify that the document is an explanatory letter to the will rather than the will itself. Your introduction may be an appropriate place to express sentiments towards your family members and loved ones. In your introduction, explain that the following information best describes your wishes for your estate following your death.
2. Explain Gifted Properties and Assets
In some cases, the reasoning behind the decisions made for your property and assets may not be immediately evident to your heirs. An explanatory letter is an excellent place to describe the reasoning behind the gifting of your property and assets. For example, if you have left your sibling your home and your children your financial assets, you may want to explain to your children why their aunt or uncle has inherited this property. This will prevent confusion and potential contesting of the will.
3. Minimize Ill-Feeling by Explaining Disparity in Inheritance
Intestate inheritance automatically divides your estate among your closest family members. When you create a will, however, you have the power to choose the percentage of the estate any given individual will inherit. In some cases, this may mean that the division of the inheritance differs from the equal distribution of intestate inheritance. If you have chosen to leave more towards a child who is struggling financially, your explanatory letter will allow you the chance to explain to your other children that the disparity of inheritance was based on need rather than disproportionate favoritism.
4. Make Suggestions for Division of Shared Property
While major properties and assets may need to be clearly divided to avoid confusion, you may bequeath shared property that covers a wide range of minor assets. For example, if you leave your home to your siblings, you may specify that you want your older sister to inherit your mother’s antique porcelain and your younger sister to inherit your library. However, remember that these guidelines are only suggestions. Your explanatory letter is not a legal document. Your heirs may make different decisions regarding the division of shared inheritance.
5. Express Wishes for Pets
Along with property and assets, many people choose to identify a caretaker for their pets in their will. In your explanatory letter, you can address the person you have chosen to care for your pets and explain your decision (i.e., why they are the most suitable person to care for your beloved pet). If you have decided to bequeath any money specifically for the care of your pet, your explanatory letter is also a good place to define how much money you have set aside for this purpose.
6. Explain Relationships to Beneficiaries
In some cases, family members may be unaware of your relationship to some of the beneficiaries in your will. To prevent your heirs from contesting your will on the grounds that you have left your estate to strangers, an explanation of your relationship with your chosen beneficiaries may be necessary. For example, if you have had a long-term romantic relationship but never married, you may want to explain to your family that you are leaving the same portion of your estate to your partner as you would a spouse. Additionally, if you are leaving property to friends or people outside your family, a short explanation of your relationship to them may prevent your heirs from potentially contesting the bequest.
7. Make an “Ethical Will”
Finally, consider using your explanatory letter to make an “ethical will.” An “ethical will” (as opposed to a legal will) can include many of the components listed above. Essentially, an ethical will is a document that relays your last words, life lessons, and important memories to your loved ones. Writing an ethical will reiterates to your heirs that your emotional inheritance is just as important as the inheritance of your property and assets. Even if you do not wish to make distinctions or clarifications for the bequests of property, you may still choose to utilize your explanatory letter as a space to write your ethical will.
What Happens if You Don’t Include an Explanatory Letter?
Technically speaking, you are not required to include an explanatory letter for your will to ensure your estate is divided as you wish. If you don’t include an explanatory letter, however, there is the risk that your family and/or heirs will misunderstand the intention behind the bequests in your will. As a result, there could be ill-feelings among your inheritors, hurt feelings, or inaccurate interpretations of your will.
Mistakes to Avoid
It is important to note that some testators may have misconceptions about the purpose and limitations of their explanatory letter when drafting their will. This can result in errors and confusion, highlighting the need for a clear understanding of the document's requirements. The following examples are common mistakes to avoid while writing an explanatory letter for your will. If you are unsure if you have made any of the following mistakes, consult an estate planning attorney to review your explanatory letter.
1. False Information
You should avoid making false or inflammatory claims in your explanatory letter. In extreme cases, your estate could be held legally liable for falsehood, resulting in financial consequences for your inheritors. To be safe, it is best to avoid making statements that would be considered either defamatory or fraudulent.
2. Additions or Changes to the Will
You should not add or change the will in your explanatory letter. For example, if you have decided to disinherit one of your heirs or change the beneficiaries for your properties, you should not only include this information in your explanatory letter. Explanatory letters are not legally binding; therefore, if you have decided to revise your will, you must make a new, valid will.
3. Give Conflicting Information
Like additions or changes, it is best to avoid giving conflicting information regarding your will in your explanatory letter. For example, if you have left your spouse the whole of your estate, it would be unwise to say that your siblings have inherited other properties unless you intend to make the corresponding changes in the will itself. The point of an explanatory letter to a will is to clarify, not create additional confusion and uncertainty.
How Can an Estate Planning Attorney Help?
Estate planning attorneys will help you ensure that you leave behind a legal, valid will. Additionally, while your explanatory letter for your will is not a binding legal document, an estate planning attorney can help you to draft this document to ensure that the explanation of your final wishes is clear to your surviving loved ones.
If you are searching for a qualified attorney in your area to help draft your will and associated documents, Expertise.com offers a free-to-use directory of estate planning attorneys. The directory will help you to locate an estate planning attorney in your nearest metro.
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