What Is a Letter of Intent?

A Letter of Intent is a non-legal document that is quickly becoming a popular way to summarize and/or supplement your estate plan for those you leave behind.

Essentially, it’s a letter from you to your personal representative/trustee and/or beneficiaries discussing your personal thoughts that resulted in your estate plan as well as any personal wishes to be considered in implementing your plan.

While not a legally binding document, a letter of intent is a blueprint of your plan and wishes.

For example: Your estate plan establishes a spendthrift trust for one of your children who is irresponsible with money. It might be awkward to explain this in your will and trust, which others will see.

In a separate letter of intent, however, you can explain your reasons to the affected beneficiary. In that same letter or in a separate letter to your trustee, you can give your trustee guidance on the beneficiary’s lack of responsibility and explain what, in your opinion, constitutes legitimate reasons for distributions, and what does not.

So, what does one include in a letter of intent? That’s entirely up to you. Include what’s important to you and your family at the time it is written.

Below is a list of ideas and points of discussion you may wish to include.

End-of-Life/Funeral Planning

(Directions to health care surrogate and personal representative)

  • Your beliefs on what constitutes “quality of life” when it comes to end-of-life care and decisions on maintaining or withholding life support measures.
  • Your thoughts on organ donation.
  • The persons who you would want notified of your death, such as family, friends, pastor/priest, etc.
  • A discussion of your wishes regarding funeral services. Do you want to be buried or cremated? Or do you prefer to donate your body to science? Are there special readings or music you want played at your funeral/memorial service?

Financial/Assets

(To your personal representative and trustee)

  • Attach a copy of your Vital Information Workbook to guide your personal representative/trustee as to your assets and how to access them.
  • Discuss what you want to happen to your social media accounts. Do you want them deleted/closed or left intact as a memorial?
  • Discuss long-term asset management wishes, if applicable, and include the names and contact information for advisors you trust to guide them.

Minor Children

(To your trustee)

  • List care instructions for your child and any special needs he or she may have. Include advice for handling their needs or behavior.
  • Discuss core beliefs that you want your child to continue to learn as they grow, i.e. religion, values, etc. Tell them about yourself, your childhood, or your family history.
  • Include a list of people who are important to your child and contact information for them, so your child can continue to see them.
  • Provide information on the child’s medical and educational history and how/from whom to obtain those records.

Special Needs Children

(To your trustee)

  • Overview of your child/adult child’s condition and medical history.
  • A list of medical care providers.
  • List of government benefits your child receives, such as Medicaid or SSDI. Don’t forget to include account numbers.
  • Detail your child’s daily schedule, food preferences, social activities, etc.
  • Discuss education and/or vocational training programs and contact information.

Adult Children/Second Family

  • If your personal representative/trustee is not a family member, make them aware of any potential family dynamics that may become an issue, such as adult children vs. new spouse or sibling rivalries. This is especially important if the distribution to your children is not in equal shares or if a second spouse is a beneficiary.
  • Advise trustee of any substantial gifts or loans made prior to death that are to be taken into account for distributions after death (references to these should be in your will/trust).
  • Clarify in lay terms your definitions of legal provisions set forth in the trust. What is your definition of “college education”? Four-year degree? Two-year? Vocational certificate? Should a child be required to contribute to his/her own education? If a beneficiary needs a new car for work, what are the limitations on that? A new $30,000 vehicle off the showroom floor or a reliable used car for $10,000?
  • Write letters to your children explaining your estate planning choices and your hopes and wishes for them going forward.

Provisions for Pets

  • Include your wishes regarding your pets after your death. Do you wish for them to go to someone specific?
  • If they cannot be taken by family or a friend, is there a specific shelter or organization that you want to handle rehoming them?
  • Are they good with other animals? Small children?
  • Include special dietary requirements, medications, and medical history.

At the end of the day, your estate planning documents give your family the legal tools necessary to take care of you and your estate, but it is your letter of intent that gives you one last opportunity to speak to and guide them. There are no rules – just your wishes as to your legacy, from your heart and in your own words.