Estate Essentials: What Do I Include in My Explanatory Letter?

When most people think of a will, likely the first thing that comes to mind is a set of instructions or wishes about how one’s assets should be distributed after their death. While this is certainly an integral part of any will and therefore, estate plan, it’s important to know that there are other components of a will that can serve a key purpose in making sure your estate plan is executed as smoothly as possible, whenever the time comes.

What to Include In An Explanatory Letter

An explanatory letter is a document that gives the owner of the will, the testator, the chance to explain, in as much detail as desired, how and why they wish to distribute their property as they have laid out. This document is not legally binding, but certainly plays a role in helping the testator’s loved ones understand the intent, or reasoning behind the instructions in their estate plan.

Explain Your Decision

It is common to start off by explaining the purpose of the letter. You should mention that the letter is not legally binding, but will have answers to certain questions that your beneficiaries may have about the contents of your estate plan. If your estate plan indeed leaves more assets to one beneficiary than another, an explanatory letter gives you the chance to explain your decisions to your loved ones and potentially prevent future family disputes regarding the matter.

Last Words

Another use of an explanatory letter is less related to the distribution of your assets and more with the personal development of your beneficiaries. To close off the letter, you may want to include some words of sentiment to reassure your loved ones of your feelings towards them and, depending on your relationship, your hopes for their future development. This part of the letter is open to anything you’d like to convey, and since this is likely the last message your beneficiaries will receive from you, it is the perfect chance to convey something truly important. 

Life Lessons

Often referred to as an “ethical will,” an explanatory letter is also great for passing down important life lessons that you believe may benefit your beneficiaries in the future. With this type of document, the sky’s the limit. You can talk about anything from personal development to values that you wish to pass down and even notable experiences that you think your loved ones can learn from.


Pet owners can also utilize an explanatory letter to express their wishes with regard to how their pet should be treated or taken care of. Again, it’s important to remember that an explanatory letter is not legally binding, so make sure that any designations you make in this letter are backed up in your will.

As mentioned previously, an explanatory letter will likely be the last time your loved ones will ever hear from you. It’s important to make sure that anything you wish to tell them, whether it relates to how your assets will be allocated or even personal lessons that you want them to be aware of, is written in the letter. If you or a loved one are looking are looking to draft a will, or have any questions about the explanatory letter, we highly recommend that you consult with a licensed estate planning attorney who will guide you through the rough waters of estate planning.