Old man writing testament sitting at a wooden table

Leaving an Explanatory Letter as Part of Your Estate Plan

The Elder & Disability Law Firm, APC  Sept. 18, 2023

We’ve all no doubt seen those TV dramas where someone in an oak-paneled study reads the contents of a will to an assembled audience of heirs and would-be beneficiaries. Suddenly a gasp or two are heard, and it’s clear that someone or more is bewildered as to why they were left out or shortchanged. 

While these scenes probably rarely happen in real life, confusion and disputes over the terms of a will are not so uncommon. Shortchanged or left-out heirs can even challenge the validity of the will so long as they have the legal standing to do so. 

A way to explain your decision-making and choices you made in your last will and testament is to craft an explanatory letter to accompany your document. There are definite benefits for doing so, but there are also traps and mistakes that can only make the administration of your estate more difficult, if not further confuse and rile your beneficiaries. 

To create a well-crafted will and an appropriate explanatory letter to accompany it in or around Redlands, California, contact the estate planning attorney at The Elder & Disability Law Firm, APC. The firm also proudly serves clients in surrounding communities, including Palm Springs, Riverside, and Rancho Cucamonga. 

What Is an Explanatory Letter?

First, it should be clarified that an explanatory letter that prefaces a will is not a legal document, so it must be worded carefully so as not to confuse those whom you’ve named as beneficiaries, and of course, least of all the personal representative, or executor, you’ve chosen to administer your estate. 

In fact, the explanatory letter can be used to clarify matters for the executor and provide rationale for the decisions you’ve made in the distribution of your assets.  

In the first sense, it can serve as an instructional document for the executor you’ve named in your will. It can be used to list where all assets you’ve left to others can be found, where important documents such as bank statements and stock portfolios can be located, the location of safe deposit boxes and their keys, and anything else that directly pertains to the administration of your estate. 

In the second sense, it can address issues that may arise when your loved ones and heirs discover the content of your will. You can address disparities in the gifting of your assets. For instance, “My brother chose to take a different direction in life and part ways with the family, so I am not including him in any inheritance.” Or, in an affirmative sense, “My neighbors John and Joan were always there for me when I faced a crisis or emergency, so I am including them in my gifting.” 

Contents of an Explanatory Letter

An explanatory letter should begin with a statement as to why you’re penning it, and this intro should make clear that it is not intended as a legal document or as an amendment or codicil to the will you created. You then can address the issues mentioned above, so that everyone knows why you made the choices you did, but you have to be careful not to further incite or offend anyone. That can only lead to further conflict over the will when it is probated. 

What to Avoid in an Explanatory Letter

An explanatory letter, if not crafted correctly, can lead to confusion, further conflict among heirs, and even legal actions against the estate. You don’t want to say anything that seems to contradict the contents of the will, for instance, making it seem that beneficiary “A” should get as much of your assets as “B” when the will states otherwise.  

Making untoward or unwise comments about heirs or presumed beneficiaries can also only inflame emotions and cause unneeded resentment. Finally, making false or inflammatory comments about someone or some business could lead to legal ramifications for your estate. 

That’s why it’s essential to create your explanatory letter with the advice and guidance of an experienced estate planning attorney. An explanatory letter is not a requirement for a will to be valid, but it can help soothe emotions when the will is probated.  

Protect Those Whom You Love

An explanatory letter is almost like a final statement to the ones you love, but you have to be careful that it doesn’t create confusion over the contents of your will or result in other adverse consequences. 

If you’re creating a will in or around Redlands, California, reach out to The Elder & Disability Law Firm, APC, to make sure your wishes for your loved ones are not only precisely expressed in your will, but also that your feelings for everyone are beautifully expressed in an explanatory letter accompanying your will.