The days after a loved one dies can be a blur of overwhelming emotions, urgent decision-making and difficult, new responsibilities. Before my sister passed away, she did something to relieve a bit of the stress on our family: She left an ‘I Love You Letter’ — essentially an easy-to-read guide to her personal wishes combined with the sort of practical and financial information survivors like us are too often left scrambling to find.
No one likes to think about their own death, but as my sister demonstrated, writing an I Love You Letter can strengthen the estate plan you and your financial planner have put into place. That’s because while your will should spell out what you want to happen to your assets and other items, it can take weeks or months after you pass for the legal process to start. Although not a binding legal document, an I Love You letter can provide certainty in an uncertain time and help bridge the information gap in the early days while your will winds its way through the court system.
Writing your letter
Aside from any personal messages you would like to deliver to your bereaved friends and relatives, the well-conceived I Love You Letter relays information concerning any important documents as well as account numbers and contact information for bank, brokerage or other financial accounts. For example, do you have a locked safe? Let your loved ones know where it is and the combination. What about insurance? Use your letter to notify family members of any policies, policy numbers and whom to contact to make a claim. To ensure that your estate doesn’t end up intestate — a situation in which a court decides what to do with your assets because your heirs aren’t aware of your will — include the name of your accountants, attorneys or financial advisors and directions on where to find the latest version of your will.
If you have dependent children, use your letter to detail your preferences for their future custody and upbringing. Finally, don’t forget to list your email and social media account passwords in your letter. This will make it easier for your family to tie up any loose ends and protect your identity after your death.
Delivering your letter
Address the letter to one person – your spouse, a sibling, adult child or trusted friend, and leave it where it will be easy for them to find. My sister, for example, left her letter in an envelope with my name on it in her bedside table. Remember, you are doing this out of an abundance of caution. Hopefully, your I Love You Letter will not be needed for many years. If that is the case, return to it at least once a year, perhaps around tax time when much of this information is already top of mind, to update account numbers, add new ones and get rid of accounts that are no longer active. An outdated letter may cause more confusion than no letter at all.
A gift of clarity
For you, in the here and now, a letter provides the peace of mind that comes from knowing that you’ve covered all your bases and done everything in your power to establish stability rather than chaos in a situation in which otherwise you will be completely powerless.
For those who live on after you are gone, an I Love You Letter bestows the gift of clarity. And when your loved ones are forced to scramble to figure out the basics, there won’t be the sort of questions about finances and bequests that can sometimes, in moments of stress and emotion, boil over into arguments. There won’t be long, exhausting sessions sifting through drawers and boxes and under the bed for that single piece of paper with that one account number. There won’t be struggles to remember the foggy details of a long ago conversation about “What if…?”
Instead, they’ll have more time to come to terms with their loss and begin the mourning process — fully understanding they can do so because of an act of foresight and love you undertook while there was still time.