Wills and Probate specialist, Jenny Greenland, explains why a Letter of Wishes can sometimes prove helpful to those administering your estate.
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What is a letter of wishes?
Before answering that question, I believe it’s crucial to emphasise what it’s not. A letter of wishes is never a substitute for a Will, nor can it be used as a codicil to amend an existing Will. To be legally valid, a Will or a codicil must comply with the formalities set out in section 9 of the Wills Act 1837.
Instead, writing a letter of wishes is a way to offer guidance to those administering your estate as to how you would like them to exercise discretion whilst still adhering to the terms of your Will. Executors often welcome practical suggestions, guidance and reassurance at what can be a challenging time.
Of course, as a letter of wishes is not legally binding, your executors can choose to ignore it. However, it’s generally felt to be difficult to ignore the wishes of the deceased completely. But if the letter of wishes and the Will conflict in some respect, the Will always wins.
Remember, anything you do not wish to leave to the discretion of others, for example, who should receive a particular family heirloom, should be dealt with in your Will, not in a letter of wishes.
Letter of wishes template
There is no restriction on what a letter of wishes can include. No witnesses or other formalities are required, so a template is unnecessary. Indeed, most people tend to write their letter of wishes as they would any other letter.
However, you should ensure you write clearly and unambiguously, avoiding any jargon. After all, you will not be around should clarification be required. If you need to explain why you have omitted somebody from the Will, or their inheritance is perhaps not what they might be expecting, be sensitive and matter-of-fact to help avoid inflaming tensions.
Typical things covered in a letter of wishes are:
- a list of people to be informed of your death and their contact details, or where those details can be found;
- details about your funeral and whether you would prefer to be buried or cremated;
- information on how you would like your executors to allocate money, assets or possessions;
- explanations of why you have taken particular steps in your Will, for example, why somebody has been omitted;
- anything to do with the future of children under 18 (remember, you can appoint one or more guardians in your Will), such as who they should live with and any wishes concerning their education.
Do I need a letter of wishes?
It’s entirely up to you whether you leave a letter of wishes. Some people like to take advantage of the opportunity to offer advice or words of encouragement, to highlight potential areas of dispute, or to explain their reason for the decisions they have made. But it can also provide an opportunity to reveal sensitive information that you do not wish to become public knowledge. So although it’s advisable to store your letter of wishes with your Will, it never becomes a public document, unlike your final Will.
When should I write a letter of wishes?
You can write a letter of wishes at any time. Many people prefer to do it when they make or update their Will, while matters are still fresh in their mind. However, just like a Will, you should periodically review your letter of wishes as your personal and family circumstances change.