“Where is Mom’s Social Security card?” It’s a common refrain when someone can’t help with their own affairs. Confusion and uncertainty compound the difficulties of dealing with a family emergency. There is a way to help those who will have to act in a family emergency. It’s called a “letter of instruction.”
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The letter of instruction is NOT a legal document. It does NOT replace a will or trust, a Health Care Power of Attorney or Living Will, or a Durable Financial Power of Attorney. On the other hand, the letter of instruction offers practical guidance usually not contained in any legal document. It’s a good way to let to those trusted to take care of your affairs know what you would want them to know.
It is also different than the “Separate Writing” that lawyers sometimes recommend accompany a Will or Revocable Living Trust. That document directs the distribution of your personal property after your death. [For example, Aunt Sally’s watch goes to my daughter Amanda; and Grandpa’s shotgun to Billy.]
Who should write the Letter of Instruction?
A husband and wife should prepare one together. The person who handles the family financial affairs should write one for the person who will have to take over in case of death or incapacity.
When is it used?
A Will is usually not read until some time after the person’s death. The letter of instruction should be readily available and in a place where a family member or other friend can find it in the event of emergency. For example, my family knows ours is in the top left-hand desk drawer in my study.
What’s in the letter?
The letter should give the contact information for the people to be notified in the event of a family emergency, and should also tell the location of all important papers . . . and passwords! It could even spell out personal preference in how various matters are to be handled, including funeral arrangements.
It should contain the specific locations of items mentioned in the letter, such as: “My insurance papers are in my safe deposit box,” or “My Social Security file is in the bottom left-hand drawer of the living room desk.”
Who should have the letter?
You should consider making the letter available to someone outside the household. If you choose to provide a copy to the person who would most likely take over if something happened, you need to remember to send them updates when you change the letter. Mostly, however, it is important that someone be able to find the Letter in the event of an emergency.
Reprinted with permission from Maine Senior Guide.