A letter of wishes is a confidential document that sets out your thought process either at the time of making your Will (or at a later date) and expresses your personal wishes about how you would like things to be done after your death. As such it can provide important information that you may wish to be kept outside of your Will, or can simply offer guidance to executors and trustees to provide general information about how you envision any money being used or information in relation to the family dynamics.
Whereas the contents of a Will are legally binding, the contents of a letter of wishes are not. Nevertheless they can be useful in certain circumstances.
A letter of wishes can simply help executors make practical early decisions, such as making funeral arrangements, however it can also provide reassurance to executors and trustees when making potentially difficult or unpopular decisions and can help them manage family expectations. A letter of wishes can be particularly helpful if your family situation is one which includes, for example, being married more than once, having children from different relationships, or a family business where one child is involved in the day to day running of the business and another is not.
Another use for a letter of wishes is to specify who should inherit certain items that are not of great monetary value but where their sentimental value means that you want to make specific mention of them. Detailing these items in your Will could make it too lengthy or difficult for the executors to deal with and if you have a change of heart about who should inherit a specific item it can be done with out having to alter your Will.
Because a letter of wishes is not legally binding the executors and trustees are under no legal obligation to distribute items in accordance with the letter.
That said, without a letter of wishes there can be confusion as to why you have made certain decisions in your Will and family members can be left not knowing the reasons for receiving a smaller inheritance in comparison to their siblings or even being left out altogether. In these circumstances a letter of wishes can help to prevent disagreements between family members and can help to avoid a challenge to your Will.
A letter of wishes does not replace the need to make a Will and cannot prevent a successful claim being brought against the Estate by an excluded beneficiary, as the recent case of Nahajec v Fowle shows (in that case, and adult child); however it can be helpful when your Will does not provide for family members as they might expect, and can provide you with the opportunity to specify who should inherit items of sentimental value to you without having to make a long and complicated Will.
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