When it comes to forward planning, producing a will tends to be the main item on one’s ‘to-do’ list. A will is an extremely valuable document, and in it you can detail posthumous intentions – such as what you’d like to leave to your nearest and dearest when you pass away. However, a will is a legal document: it’s not designed to contain emotional wording, or to explain any complex or difficult decisions that you’ve made. A letter of wishes can be the ideal place in which to record personal thoughts, feelings and explanations.
What is a Letter of Wishes?
A letter of wishes is a document that is stored alongside your will – it adds ‘colour’ to a will, which can be (necessarily) very black and white, and is a formal document. There’s no specific format that a letter of wishes has to follow, though it’s recommended that a lawyer looks over your letter and adds certain wording to ensure things are clear. Essentially, however, the letter of wishes is a document that communicates your thoughts to your executors and loved ones in a more personal way than a will.
Why Would I Need a Letter of Wishes?
There are several circumstances in which a letter of wishes can be really useful. First and foremost, a letter of wishes is a private document, unlike a will, which could become public after your death (if it goes to probate). If there is any sensitive or confidential information that you’d like to disclose, it is probably safest to put it in your letter of wishes.
Life is rarely simple: and it’s in providing a sense of nuance that a letter of wishes can be really useful. It may be the case that you wish to leave possessions in unequal shares; there may be children from different marriages, or perhaps your children are in very different places in their lives. Whatever decision you come to, it’s likely to have been made after a great deal of thought – so why not share this thinking? Though it’s unlikely that anyone would intend their wills to cause offence, this can happen: the writer Daisy Goodwin, as an example, wrote publicly about the ‘hurt and rejection’ she felt on learning that her mother had cut her out of her estate. In another article, Goodwin stated that ‘it’s every parent’s responsibility to talk to their children about the legacy they might leave’. By putting your thoughts in a letter of wishes, you are able to clarify the contents of your will and potentially protect your loved ones from uncertainty and heartache.
There are other ways in which such clarity might be useful, too. For example, if you have children, it’s common to appoint a guardian in your will. Your letter of wishes can record wishes about how you’d like your children to be raised: where they should live, for example, or your hopes for their education. Similarly, if you have a business, your letter of wishes could contain details regarding how you’d like the business to be run after you die.
Finally, a letter of wishes is a great place in which to provide details of small bequests. These should be less formal in nature – anything valuable should be documented in your will – as though a letter of wishes is compelling, it’s not legally binding (more on that below). But if there’s an item of sentimental value that you’d like to leave, you can mention this in the letter of wishes along with the reasons why. If there’s a more personal request – a beloved pet that you’d like to be looked after by a certain person, or particular requirements for your funeral, for example – you can also outline these in your letter of wishes.
Is a Letter of Wishes Legally Binding?
Strictly speaking, no: though they can be persuasive pieces of evidence in court (if there was a claim against the estate, for example).
There are certain guidelines that should be followed when composing a letter of wishes:
- The letter of wishes needs to refer to the will by date. We advise that you instruct a lawyer to help with the wording.
- The letter of wishes should be signed and dated, but it doesn’t need to be witnessed.
- The letter should be stored with your will.
In the event of a claim, providing the letter of wishes has been composed and stored correctly (as above), it could prove invaluable. Though as a document it is not 100% fool-proof, the letter is from the ‘mouth’ of the testate and as such can be very convincing – in fact, it can actually prevent claims from ever reaching court.
For advice about drafting a will or composing a letter of wishes, please get in touch today. Bellevue Law’s experienced lawyers are on hand to offer sensitive, well-considered advice which caters for every individual circumstance.
Disclaimer: this material is a general overview only, and is not intended to provide legal advice.