What is a ‘letter of wishes’ and should you have one?

Frequently when clients start to think about making a Will, the most pressing thing on their minds is about who they would like to leave their assets to and who they would like to administer their estate.

Less pressing is their funeral arrangements, and yet many people have very strong and specific wishes as to the nature and conduct of their funeral.

Under the present law, the executors appointed under the Will have ownership of the body and are, technically, the decision makers for funeral arrangements.

In practice, the funeral is usually arranged by whoever chooses to step up to the plate and make arrangements. Sadly, in a fair number of cases, the decision as to who is to arrange the funeral and the form it is to take can be the subject of great contention and bring long held emotions and family divisions to the fore.

Any funeral wishes expressed in a Will, although not legally binding, can therefore be a helpful reference point for those arranging the funeral, particularly if you are not comfortable discussing these with your friends and family.

We generally advise against including detailed funeral wishes in the Will. A simple expression of whether you wish to be buried or cremated is sufficient; the detail is better left to a conversation with appropriate members of the family.

However as death and dying are often seen as taboo subjects – the subject of arranging one’s own funeral rarely crops up in every day conversation.

Whilst it is no substitute to making your wishes known in person, a separate letter of wishes to your executors can also be a useful record.

A letter of wishes is not binding, but the advantage of a letter of wishes is that it does not need to take any particular form. It can simply be signed by you and updated as and when you want; unlike expressing wishes in a Will, which may entail rewriting your will should your wishes change. The letter of wishes should be kept with your Will and a copy should be given to those close to you and those you would expect to deal with your funeral arrangements when the time comes.

Please be aware however that if you are thinking about donating your body or parts of it for medical research, the Human Tissue Act 2004 requires you to give written and witnessed consent in advance.

Consent cannot be given by anyone else after your death, therefore if you do wish to donate your body, you will need to obtain a consent form from your local medical school. Once completed a copy should be kept with your Will. You should also inform your family, close friends, and GP that you wish to donate your body.

It would also be sensible to incorporate your wishes into your Will in case the consent form becomes separated from your Will.

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