Personal Law

Writing a will can be tricky but trying to understand a loved one’s will after their death can be agonising. A simple letter of wishes can help to easily address and avoid this emotional stress.

What is a letter of wishes?

There is no trickery here or confusing legal jargon. It is a letter, written in plain English, which sets out your wishes for the distribution of your estate on death. It is a non-binding letter designed to sit alongside your will.

Its purpose is to provide posthumous guidance to executors, trustees and family members and provides an opportunity to set out your thought process either at the time of making the will or at a later date. In many cases, a letter of wishes will become the most important tool in assisting your executors and trustees in reaching pragmatic early decisions in line with your specific wishes – speaking out where a will cannot. A letter of wishes can be key on assisting your executors to manage family expectations, wealth, the family business, and general family dynamics for many years

Importantly, and unlike a will, it is a private document. Following a death and where an application for probate/confirmation from the court is being sought in connection with a deceased person’s estate, the will becomes a publically registered document but a letter of wishes does not. For more information on what information trustees should and should not disclose, see our recent blog.

Should you make one?

A letter of wishes can be particularly helpful in a number of situations; including giving you the opportunity to explain, in your words, why certain family members have not been included as beneficiaries, or why unexpected benefi­ciaries have been included in your will.

  • Your family – not necessarily 1.7 children…

Your family situation may not be straightforward – it could include remarriage, children from different relationships, a mix of very young and adult children, a child involved and another not involved with the family business, meaning your will might not provide for family members as they might expect. A simple letter of wishes lets you explain your thoughts. Without it, your family could be left hurt and frustrated not knowing the reasons for receiving a smaller inheritance in comparison to their siblings or even being left out altogether.

This specific issue was recently highlighted by Daisy Goodwin in the Sunday Times in December 2014 following her own shock and heart break at being side-lined in her mother’s will. Her relationship with her mother had been a good one, though not without its complications, and she writes about feeling rejected as well as experiencing the resurrection of childish resentments. Had her mother made a letter of wishes explaining why she was treating her daughter differently from her other children (apparently she was of the view that Daisy was in less need than her other children) this could have provided a chance to explain to Daisy that she did not love her any less, but simply felt she was financially more secure than her other siblings. Instead, Daisy is now left unable to fully grieve the loss of her mother and searching for an explanation she will never have.

  • Other uses

A letter of wishes can be used in many circumstances. They can deal with family wealth, complex and/or unusual assets (how to look after a horse is not so unusual!), business interests, tax mitigation and the interaction of these assets within a trust arrangement. They can also be used to explain the rationale for certain lifetime gifts or funeral instructions. Guidance can also be given for care of vulnerable children or guardians of your children in relation to religious upbringing, educa­tion and residence etc.

Your circumstances change?

It is just as easy as it is to make a letter of wishes, as it is to destroy or update one, without the need to update your will. Its flexibility and confidentiality means it can evolve in tandem with your life. Crucially, it allows you to let those key people know your true (and current) wishes and thoughts which are not always evident from a will.

If you would like to discuss any of the points raised a please do get in touch with a member of our Personal & Family team.


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