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Letters of Wishes

I mentioned in a previous post the significance of a letter of wishes.

Essentially a letter of wishes does exactly what is says on the tin. It lets the executors of a will know how the deceased wants certain items to be distributed without having to include it in a will. It is not legally binding and so does not have to be followed by the executors if they choose not to do so, so should not be used for expensive items or things which you are desperate should go to a particular person.

The usual way to arrange things is to have a will, leaving specified items (if you want to) to certain beneficiaries, the personal effects (minor things in your house etc) to the executors (or other trustees) and the ‘residue’ – usually the bulk of the estate – to specified people, maybe a spouse or divided between children. Those personal effects (‘chattels’) left to the executors are theirs to deal with as they see fit. However if the deceased has left a letter of wishes the executors can be sure of how the deceased wanted those items to be dealt with.

A letter of wishes can also be more personal – it can leave messages to relatives, explain in plain English preferred funeral arrangements. If the will is contested, the letter may have to be revealed but often it might be left as a private letter to the executors and/or beneficiaries – a will is automatically a public document once probate is granted.

For executors worried about what an executor has to do it can be useful to know what they do and don’t have to do.

An example: A lady writing her will leaves her diamond wedding ring to her eldest daughter, her grandfather’s pocket watch to her son and a watercolour of her childhood town to her best friend; she leaves her personal effects to her executors and the rest of her estate to be divided between all of her four children. The will runs to two and a half A4 pages in a decent-sized font.

She then leaves a six page, handwritten letter of wishes stating:

That she wants the daughters not given something in her will to pick an item from her personal effects, any of the rest of the clutter in her house to be given to those who want it and the remainder left to the cats home round the corner. She asks to be cremated and her ashes scattered near “the hill we always picnic at” when on holiday in the South Downs and explains she doesn’t mind where the funeral is held, provided her 85 year old brother is considered. She also explains that she hasn’t left anything to her brother for the sole reason that she doesn’t think he wants/needs anything but if she’s wrong, to let him have what he wants. For each person she mentions, she thanks them for their friendship/help and addresses them personally.

The first three items are mentioned specifically because the ring is expensive and it is important to her, and family tradition, that the pocket watch passes to her son. Her best friend grew up close to her in the same town but wasn’t especially loved by either her husband or children, so to ensure that she gets inexpensive watercolour, it is written into the will.

She isn’t particularly bothered about the rest of her belongings and trusts her executors – her two eldest children – to distribute it fairly. She knows that if she included specific provisions in her will it might double in length, or she might sell an item or change her mind about which charity and have to pay to rewrite the will.

She knows that having something so vague as “that hill” is pointless to include in a legally binding will and asking people to consider her brother might be redundant if he dies first.

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