Estate plan letter to your family: What to include

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(MoneyWatch) So you've followed through with getting your estate documents in order. But having your documents in order is only part of a good estate plan.

What you need to do next is to prepare a letter that will help your family settle your affairs by letting them know what they need to do after you have departed. Usually, the instructions you'll want to provide in this letter are more of a personal wish, and therefore cannot be included in a legal document. But what you put in this letter should be consistent with the terms of your will and or trusts.

Consider the following items as you develop the outline of your letter:

People to notify: Certain people and institutions must be contacted upon your death, including your attorney, executor, trustee and tax specialist. Providing names, titles, addresses and telephone numbers now will make it easier for the person who will contact these individuals.

Funeral arrangements: If you have made your own arrangements or have special requests, communicate them clearly and provide the necessary details. Include a reminder for the funeral director to provide multiple copies of the death certificate for transferring property and processing insurance and Social Security claims.

Location of Personal Papers: Use the Document Locator to record the exact location of you personal documents.

Instructions to trustee: For example, specify how you want your guardian reimbursed for expenses incurred while caring for your children.

Valuables: Maintain a complete list of all your jewelry and other valuables (china, glassware, art collections, antiques, etc.), including their location. You may also include the names of those to whom the articles should be given. This list is sometimes part of the will itself, or itemized on a separate personal property list. Some states allow a letter of instruction to be a binding part of your will through incorporation by reference. Check with your estate-planning attorney for more information.

Special assets: List any special assets, such as stock options, that require action by your executor within a specific time frame.

Trusts: List any trust you have established, including the name and address of the trustee and the contents of the trust.

Special survivor's benefits: List possible sources of benefits not mentioned in your will, such as: Social Security, veterans' organizations, employee, pension and retirement plans, fraternal associations. Otherwise these benefits might be overlooked.

Notes/Letters: Because wills and trusts tend to be sealed, consider including personal thoughts and messages for your beneficiaries. For example, you can name whom you want to receive grandmother's jewelry or grandfather's watch, as well as a bit of history relating to each memento. It is often awkward to ask relatives for items you have lent them previously. This is your last opportunity to retrieve those items and pass on the property to whomever you wish. While this is not binding, most last requests will be honored.

Create a personal legacy: Consider conducting annual interviews on audio or video tape, dictating stories or writing letters to convey autobiographical information for future generations. This is especially important when you have young children. Interview grandparents, too, or have them read a holiday story on a separate tape.

Finally, as an alternative to a written letter, you can record your letter of instruction on audio or videotape.

  • Ray Martin

    View all articles by Ray Martin on CBS MoneyWatch»
    Ray Martin has been a practicing financial advisor since 1986, providing financial guidance and advice to individuals. He has appeared regularly as a contributor on the CBS Early Show, CBS NewsPath, as a columnist on CBS Moneywatch.com and on NBC-TV's morning newscast TODAY. He has also appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and is the author of two books.