Letters of Instruction and Ethical Wills Ease Burdens of Grieving Families

documents supplementing last will and testament aid the bereaved in times of loss

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Letters of instruction for after your death can alleviate troubles for loved ones. We rarely wish to think about our own deaths, but properly conveying your final wishes makes all the difference in settling your estate. Making them is simple and helpful.

A last will and testament, letter of instruction, and ethical will are all documents that help bereaved loved ones to take care of the numerous details following the death of a family member. Photo By Antonio Guillem / Shutterstock

There are several documents that anyone can prepare before their death to ease their loved ones’ burden afterward. The best-known type of document is a last will and testament, although drafting some final wishes is also important and can include the often overlooked ethical will.

How life-changing can a last will and testament be for the bereaved? In one recent example, a Tennessee man left his border collie $5 million. Similarly, written final wishes regarding one’s body and funeral services can give family members guidance on how to handle the death itself, while an ethical will can tell that family how the deceased would like to be remembered.

In her video series Getting Your Legal House in Order, Professor Sally Hurme, J.D., explained some of the seldom considered documents one can prepare.

To the Letter

A letter of instruction regarding your final wishes can answer the dozens of questions awaiting the bereaved, and it can be done without a lawyer.

“It doesn’t have to be fancy; unlike a will or a trust, it doesn’t need to follow any special format or use special language,” Professor Hurme said. “You can add to it as you think of something and change it when you change your mind; it’s a good idea to sign and date it as you make revisions, just so your family will know what your final plan is.

“The most important things about this document are that a most trusted person in your life knows about it and can rely on it when they need it.”

Some of the decisions to be included in your letter of instruction are whether or not you’d like to be an organ donor, who to contact if you’ve made a whole-body donation of your corpse for science or medical research, your preferred method of corpse disposal (ground burial, cremation, etc.), which religious rituals to carry out for your funeral service, and so on.

A Question of Ethics

Professor Hurme also recommended writing out an ethical will. Although it has the word “will” in its title, she said it shouldn’t be mistaken as any kind of legal or official document. It’s actually quite informal.

“If you are not familiar with an ethical will, it’s a personal legacy statement in which you share your values, blessings, and advice,” she said. “It’s not a new idea; it’s an ancient tradition to pass on personal values, beliefs, or blessings to future generations.”

Professor Hurme said that ethical wills used to be passed down orally, but have since become written documents. With current technology, you can even make a video or audio recording of the ethical will so future generations can see and hear you long after you’ve passed.

“You might pass on some of your life’s lessons, relay hopes and dreams for future generations, or extend forgiveness to friends or family members. Preparing an ethical will is an opportunity for you to put down on paper what you hold dear: your memories, insights, and special wisdom that you don’t want to be lost or forgotten.”

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily