Most people are aware of the importance of making a will, and that a correctly executed will is a legally binding document.
A letter of wishes, which is a confidential document which can be written to accompany a will, is not legally binding. However, it can still be a very important document.
Where family members have been left out of a will, or are to receive a smaller share of an estate than they may otherwise have expected, a letter of wishes can be a useful indicator of the reasoning behind the decision and the thought process at the time the will was made. The letter can go into as much detail as is needed and may include the background and family history that has led them to take this course of action.
There may be many reasons for cutting a family member out of a will. One of the main reasons for making a will is to ensure that the people intended to benefit from the estate, do.
A letter of wishes does not replace the need for making a will, and cannot prevent a claim being made against the estate, as is evidenced in recent cases which have been decided by the Courts.
The content of the letter of wishes alone can sometimes be sufficient to prevent a formal challenge from family members, who, while they may not be happy about the will, are prepared to respect the wishes set out in the letter once the reasoning is made clear to them.
Similarly, the content of the letter can sometimes be enough to make a disappointed beneficiary realise that a court may not be sympathetic to them and decide not to challenge the will.
There are several grounds on which a will can be challenged and, in particular, children (including adult children), spouses and dependants can try to make a claim on an estate. Of course, the fact that it is technically possible to challenge a will does not mean that such a challenge will be successful and a letter of wishes can be an opportunity to explain the decision from beyond the grave.
A letter of wishes can also help executors make practical decisions, such as funeral arrangements.
Another way a letter of wishes is commonly used is to specify who should receive items which are not of great monetary value, but their sentimental value means that they should pass to a preferred beneficiary or loved one. Detailing items such as these in a Will can make it lengthy or complicated. Additionally, if there is a change of heart about who is to receive a particular item, this can be done without having to alter the will.
A letter of wishes is not legally binding, and so the executors are under no obligation to distribute the items in accordance with the letter, and the contents will simply be viewed as your wishes.