Most people know it is prudent to have Powers of Attorney (PoA) in place for both property and personal care. It would be awful to be incapacitated without a plan and a clear path forward regarding what is best. People also know that Wills are critical for all but the most basic estate transfers. However, what many people don’t consider is that grey area surrounding the mundane elements of one’s life such as personal effects, social media accounts, and small but prized possessions.
When someone dies, they hopefully have big-ticket elements of their lives addressed in their Wills. The problem is that many small and often highly personal things escape the attention of the person drawing up the Will. Also, things will often change.
One way to deal with this lack of certainty regarding posthumous intent is to execute a Letter of Wishes (LoW). Depending on the wording, it may or may not be legally binding, even if the intent is clear. If done with proper care, the wording can make your decisions binding. But the wording might also be a mere suggestion, so how you give instructions can be critical.
What is the main test in making the distinction? If you want your LoW to be binding, then refer to it in your Will and your PoA (property), too. Given the need for timeliness, it should be easy to access the document(s) immediately.
There’s a relatively short list of what might be covered. It usually includes decisions about burial vs. cremation, organ donations, and any items or personal effects that offer emotional or nostalgic significance to other family members and friends. These days you can’t overlook social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) and digital accounts (including passwords) for pre-established memberships, billings, and donations (Amazon, Air Miles, Save the Children).
Unless current passwords are stored in a safe, easily accessible place, gaining access to the digital footprint of the deceased can become a Herculean task and an awful burden. Bank accounts alone can be a nightmare to access.
A good LoW itemizes not only what is to be done with each of these accounts but provides the necessary tools to complete the desired task quickly and efficiently. Keeping a LoW in your safety deposit box, for instance, can save your Executor/Executrix a mountain of work – especially if it includes passwords to all your digital accounts. It should be noted that some providers (e.g. Google) allow users to specify what happens when an account goes inactive.
As is often the case, much of the responsibility rests with the designated persons and depends on the good judgment of those individuals. No matter how discerning your closest friends are, they are not clairvoyant. If something unexpected happens to you, it is highly recommended that you put down your specific wishes so any potential grey areas can be resolved. If there is something where discretion would be a challenge and no clear guidance is indicated, then that guidance should be provided. Here are examples of what might be itemized:
- Details regarding employment, including a contact person at HR where the person worked.
- Specific friends and family who need to be notified for any reason.
- Where to find documents, including contact info for your lawyer and accountant.
- Any outstanding debts.
- Any life insurance policies (including account numbers).
- Points and Rewards program details.
- Social media accounts.
- Professional and recreational memberships.
- Subscriptions (cable, internet, phone, e-magazines).
Anything accumulated during your lifetime, no matter how big or small, must be disposed of when you’re no longer around. It’s challenging enough for your closest, most trusted loved ones to cope with your passing. The least you can do is lighten the load by helping them navigate the world without you in a way that removes all uncertainty and makes it easier for them to do what you wanted. Many people may fret over the lack of clear guidance and specifics, but having a Letter of Wishes will ease the burden for all.