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Letters of Wishes: An Administrative and Moral Headache in Disguise?


1. Letters of Wishes are Theoretically Sound

Trustees may have difficulties determining whether to make distributions when the grantor’s intentions are unclear. Consider a trust provision that provides for a beneficiary’s support in the form of reasonable medical expenses. The trust’s sole beneficiary approaches the trustee requesting a distribution for a gastric bypass surgery. The surgery can cost upwards of $45,000 and is the preferred method of achieving seventy-five pounds of weight loss. However, the surgery may be unsuccessful, and may result in post-operation complications and side effects that could impact the beneficiary’s health and require further distributions. Is the surgery a reasonable medical expense? Should the trustee make the distribution for the surgery?

Depending on the trustee, and his or her relationship to the grantor, the answer to the above questions is likely different. Scholars suggest that trustees should administer a trust “in [the] state of mind in which it was contemplated by the settlor that [the trustee] would act.”[1] If a spouse is serving as trustee, he or she seemingly has ample opportunity to determine the grantor’s intent. If the drafting attorney is the trustee, the trustee may have gathered insight into the grantor’s mindset and goals while drafting the trust that could be applied to administration. Consider next a corporate trustee who enters the picture well after the grantor’s death. These trustees may have never met the grantor and are unlikely to have anything more than the trust instrument to guide administration. When contemplating a distribution to a beneficiary, each trustee should rely on the terms of the trust to determine whether the distribution should be made, although it is likely that each trustee’s perspective and relationship with the grantor will impact his or her decision.

A significant challenge many trustees face is that terms like health, education, maintenance, support, and best interests are as common in trust instruments as they are interpretive. Because these terms are interpretive, their application can be challenging even for the most diligent trustee; the interplay between these interpretive words/phrases and social, economic, and legal changes that occur during the administration of a trust can prove difficult to manage. In determining whether to make a discretionary distribution what must, or may the trustee rely on? Just the trust instrument? Extrinsic evidence? Personal opinion?

A. Enter the Letter of Wishes

A letter of wishes is a document that allows a grantor to express his or her goals for the trust. Information included can vary, but they offer information about how the grantor wants the trust to be administered by giving insight into the grantor’s state of mind, opinions on distributions, and issues that may arise with the trust’s beneficiaries.[2] These letters can serve two separate but equally important purposes. First, a letter of wishes can give the grantor the sense that the trustee fully understands their goals for the trust and can administer it in accordance with those goals. Second, letters of wishes can give a trustee something to proverbially hang their hat on when looking for guidance as to whether to make a distribution as the letter can clarify a trust instrument’s general terms.

In the example above, a letter explaining the trustee’s hesitance toward making distributions for cosmetic medical procedures would be valuable. Instead of guesswork, a letter outlining the grantor’s interpretation of the trust’s terms can assist a trustee in choosing to make distributions with greater confidence and flexibility.[3] This is the crux of the argument for many proponents of letters of wishes.[4]

2. Logistics of Incorporating a Letter of Wishes Into an Estate Plan

Though letters of wishes are thought of as an informal tool[5] drafted by the grantor for the trustee’s benefit, the timing and method of drafting should be considered in relation to state trust laws by any practitioner who recommends its use to a client. Consideration should also be given to whether the letter should be incorporated into the trust as an exhibit or whether the letter should bind the trustee.

A. What is the Ideal Time to Draft a Letter of Wishes?

Practitioners should consider advising clients to draft letters of wishes close to the time the trust is settled in order to avoid disputes over whether the letter is representative of the grantor’s intent.[6] The following is illustrative: in 2017, immediately after selling his business, at his attorney’s advice, Grantor executes a discretionary trust for Grantor’s grandchildren to provide for their college educations. In 2022, the Grantor is now retired and has time to finally read the education trust that his attorney prepared for him.  At that time, the Grantor writes a letter of wishes explaining the grantor’s preference for distributions from the trust that further the pursuit of a STEM college education by Grantor’s grandchildren.  Shortly thereafter, all but one of Grantor’s grandchildren enroll in college to pursue liberal arts degrees.  The golden grandchild enrolls in a STEM program at his grandfather’s alma mater. The letter of wishes, drafted well after a significant passage of time, reflects that perhaps the Grantor’s opinions and relationships with his grandchildren may have changed. The trust does not have sufficient funds to cover the college tuition for all of the grandchildren and so the trustee must determine whether or not to make tuition payments for each grandchild or only certain grandchildren.  What is the trustee to do – follow the terms of the trust or follow the current wishes of the grantor?  Because of the timing as to the execution of the letter of wishes – there is an argument that the letter of wishes should be ignored.

Hugh v. Amalgamated Tr. & Sav. Bank[7] illustrates how timing can impact the effectiveness of a grantor’s extrinsic letters.[8] In Hugh, the Illinois Court of Appeals determined that the grantor did not gift land to a trust for the benefit of his grandchildren in part because letters expressing the grantor’s desire that the land be gifted to the grandchildren’s trust were delivered to the trustee several years after the trust was settled.[9] The court noted that the grantor’s exercise of dominion and control over the land in the time between when the grantor settled the trust and drafted the letters and when the letters were actually delivered to the trustee indicated that the grantor’s intent was to retain the property and not to make a gift.[10] Therefore, given the complications that may arise, the timing of the letter is very important.

B. How Involved Should an Estate Planning Attorney be in Drafting a Letter of Wishes?

Practitioners should consider their own involvement in drafting a letter of wishes and how differing degrees of involvement can impact the trust. Letters of wishes are often personal documents that allow a grantor to express his or her feelings about beneficiaries, philosophy on distributions, and goals for how the grantor’s legacy should be maintained.[11] Though the letter may be of great importance to the grantor, significant attorney involvement can complicate the trust drafting process by risking inclusion of precatory language in the trust instrument and presenting an opportunity for a grantor to incur significant legal fees for something of questionable utility. Executing a letter of wishes in conjunction with a trust instrument may cause a grantor to request that language from the letter be incorporated into the trust. Though many estate planning clients are sophisticated, the risk of creating ambiguity in the trust with emotional, personal, and imprecise language may be lost on them.[12] This risk should not be lost on their attorney. Time constraints and workload may cause estate planning attorneys to devote little thought to the letter of wishes, even though the letter may be important to the client and may risk insertion of precatory language into the trust document.

C. To be Effective, Must a Letter of Wishes be Incorporated into the Trust?

As letters of wishes are not legally binding on the trustee in and of themselves,[13] grantors must rely on a trustee feeling morally and ethically obligated to administer the trust in accordance with the letter. A solution to this problem may be to incorporate the letter of wishes into the trust as an exhibit. Matter of Estate of Kirk suggests that this option may be feasible as the court found a handwritten note attached to a formal trust amendment to be part of the amendment for purposes of administering the trust.[14] However, some scholars counsel against this, as attaching the letter as an exhibit would make the letter discoverable by beneficiaries, who may use the letter as an opportunity to increase the likelihood of getting a distribution or may find the letter hurtful.[15] Practitioners should counsel clients using this option to be sure that the letter does not contradict the trust instrument’s terms. Contradictions of this sort could be used as evidence of ambiguity, subjecting the trust to attacks from dissatisfied beneficiaries.

D. Should the Letter be Binding on the Trustee?

Scholars agree that letters of wishes should be made explicitly non-binding on the trustee, arguing that binding letters would interfere with the trustee’s discretion and hinder administration.[16] This argument is bolstered by the fact that the purpose of using more general language in a trust instrument is to provide the trustee with flexibility so that the trust can adapt to social, legal, and economic changes that impact administration.[17] Although the lack of litigation over letters of wishes may indicate that letters of wishes are often taken into account and used in administering the trust,[18] grantors should understand that the letters are deliberately non-binding in order to reap the benefits of adaptability. Grantors and their counsel should evaluate the risks of making a letter of wishes binding, and consider the benefits of a non-binding instrument.

3. Digging Deeper: Are Letters of Wishes Truly a Positive Addition to an Estate Plan?

Fast forward 10 years in the hypothetical posed in Part 1. Suppose you are approached by the trustee who has just found the letter expressing the grantor’s distaste for cosmetic procedures. Also assume that the trustee just received the gastric bypass distribution request. The trustee asks the attorney whether he or she must rely on the letter, what do you tell them? What if they ask whether they can exercise their discretion? Or what the trustee’s moral obligations are? Could the letter be deemed an amendment? The answers are unclear, but the following section applies scholarly opinion, statutory authority, and case law to explain how these issues can be addressed by practitioners.

A. Does the Trustee Have to Rely on the Letter?

While scholarly opinion is generally favorable toward letters of wishes, issues can complicate the positive purpose for which these letters are drafted. The first issue is whether the trustee has any obligation to rely on a letter of wishes. While trustees have historically abided by letters of wishes,[19] the letters are usually non-binding and often do not need to be disclosed to beneficiaries.[20] This means that the trustee has no legal obligation to make or forego making distributions in accordance with a letter of wishes.[21] Further, as noted by the restatement, letters of wishes are generally considered private correspondence between the grantor and trustee that offer guidance to the trustee, suggesting that the trustee has no duty to consider or abide by the letter in making a discretionary distribution.[22] Practitioners should be sure to discuss this with clients when deciding who to name as trustee to ensure that the client picks a trustee who is capable of managing the trust financially and effectuating the grantor’s intent to the full extent allowed by the law.

B. If the Trustee Wants to Consider a Grantor’s Letter of Wishes, Can They?

Further, a trustee may not be able to consider a grantor’s letter of wishes even if they want to. For example, Illinois common law provides that the general goal in construing a trust is to determine the grantor’s intent and to give effect to that intent if it is not contrary to law or public policy.[23] The grantor’s intent is to be determined solely by reference to the plain language of the trust itself.[24] Extrinsic evidence is only appropriate if the trust is ambiguous and the grantor’s intent cannot be ascertained.[25] When the language of a document is clear and unambiguous, a court should not modify or create new terms.[26] While Illinois courts have not addressed how a letter of wishes should be treated in relation to these rules of interpretation, Illinois’ Court of Appeals in In re Estate of Crooks noted that a decedent’s letter directing parcels of land to be transferred to him individually—which contradicted his previously executed will, trust, and quitclaim deeds directing the parcels to be transferred to a revocable trust—could not be used by a disgruntled heir to create an ambiguity in the decedent’s will, trust, or quitclaim deeds.[27] This suggests that a letter of wishes would be treated similarly unless there was an ambiguity in the four corners of the trust.

Practitioners should ensure that they are familiar with the statutes and common law governing trust interpretation for the state that governs the trusts they administer. While Illinois is fairly restrictive as far as what the trustee can rely on in administering the trust, Florida is more liberal.[28] In Kritchman v. Wolk, Florida’s Court of Appeals found that co-trustees of a revocable trust breached their duties of prudent administration and impartiality by failing to pay a beneficiary’s education expenses as requested in a letter from the grantor to the co-trustees prior to her death.[29] As such, the state where a letter of wishes is executed could impact whether a trustee may refer to it in administering the trust.[30] Further, the trust’s terms should be considered carefully to determine whether a letter of wishes or other written directive from the grantor should have any impact on administering the trust.

C. Moral and Ethical Obligations

While a trustee is unlikely to be required by law to consider a letter of wishes when administering a trust—and may, in fact, be prohibited from considering such a letter—they may feel a moral or ethical obligation to consider the grantor’s wishes when making discretionary distributions. Scholars suggest that trustees should administer trusts “in the state of mind contemplated by the settlor.”[31] Scholars also note that letters of wishes are “[m]oral and emotional accompaniments to a formal distribution scheme, [which]. . . have an important role to play in the planning process.”[32] This suggests that trustees may feel obligated to administer a trust consistently with a grantor’s letter of wishes. However, as shown by Kritchman, trustees without a personal connection to the grantor may feel no obligation to administer trusts in accordance with a grantor’s letter of wishes and may instead rely solely on the terms of the trust.[33] grantors and attorney’s should consider a potential trustee’s moral or ethical disposition towards a letter of wishes because this sense of obligation may depend on the trustee’s relationship with the grantor.[34]

D. Is the Letter an Amendment?

Depending on the circumstances under which a letter is drafted and signed, in addition to the letter’s content, some could argue that a letter of wishes is an amendment to a trust. Though many trust statutes require amendments to be made in accordance with the trust’s terms, a significant number of states allow a trust to be amended “by any other method manifesting clear and convincing evidence of the settlor’s intent.”[35] Arguably, a letter of wishes expressing a grantor’s specific desire as to what distributions should and should not be made could function as an amendment. However, no United States federal or state court has addressed the issue.

In Illinois, a trust can be amended by reserving the right to amend in the trust instrument.[36] If the trust instrument specifically describes the method for amendment then that method alone must be used to amend the trust.[37] Scholars suggest that Illinois trusts should be drafted in such a way that all amendments must be prepared by a lawyer familiar with the trust instrument.[38] Despite this guidance, the status of a letter of wishes as an amendment to an Illinois trust uncertain. While it is possible that a letter of wishes could be drafted in such a way that it meets the trust’s requirements, it is dependent on the trust instrument’s amendment provision(s). If the grantor wants their letter to function as an amendment, the trust instrument would need to be drafted to ensure that the letter meets the trust instrument’s formal requirements. Drafting a trust instrument in this way may not be advisable because of the potential for introducing precatory language and ambiguity into the trust.

An example serves to further illustrate this issue. Consider a marital trust instrument that allows discretionary distributions for either the beneficiary-spouse’s support or best interests. Assume that both terms are defined with substantive differences. Suppose the grantor drafts a subsequent letter of wishes explaining how the grantor would determine what is in his or her spouse’s best interest, but uses language that mirrors the trust instrument’s definition of support. Should the trust be considered amended to reflect a support standard for all discretionary distributions? The answer depends on the letter’s wording, governing state law, and the trust’s terms. In Illinois, such a letter would be unlikely to amend the trust unless the trust instrument’s amendment provision was drafted to allow for such a letter to function as an amendment.[39] However, a letter of wishes may be more likely to amend a trust in states like Wisconsin[40] and Kentucky[41] that follow the UTC’s more lenient provision.[42]

4. Conclusion

While letters of wishes may aid a trustee in administering a discretionary trust and provide the grantor with peace of mind, grantors and their counsel should think carefully about whether a letter of wishes is appropriate for the grantor’s situation. The uncertain state of the law as to the effect that a letter of wishes has on trust administration suggests there is more to letters of wishes than meets the eye. Though scholars generally praise letters of wishes as a means for a grantor to “communicate their cultural beliefs, values, and practices”[43] or as “helpful to a trustee in ascertaining the settlor’s state of mind, objectives, and purposes in establishing [a] discretionary trust,”[44] counsel should be aware that a letter may cause problems in administering the trust instead of solving them.[45] Practitioners who recommend a letter of wishes and/or whose clients choose to include them in their estate plan should advise clients as to the uncertain status of letters of wishes as a viable estate planning tool. Further, any decision to include a letter of wishes in an estate plan should only be made with an understanding of state trust statutes and case law and careful consideration of who to name as trustee.

Reach out to HMB’s Private Client, Trusts and Estates Group here.


[1] Austin Wakeman Scott & William Franklin Fratcher, The Law of Trusts § 187 (2006).
[2] See Alexander A. Bove, Jr., The Letter of Wishes: Can We Influence Discretion in Discretionary Trusts?, 35 ACTEC J. 38, 39 (2009).
[3] Id.; Edward C. Halbach, Problems of Discretion in Discretionary Trusts, 61 Colum. L. Rev. 1425 (1961) (arguing that the trustee should be given notice of the trust’s purpose and the grantor’s goals and beliefs to administer the trust in the way the grantor intended).
[4] See e.g., Bove, supra note 2, at 43; Henry Christensen III, 100 Years is a Long Time – New Concepts and Practical Planning Ideas, SN025 ALI-ABA 149, 183–84 (2007) (“[A letter of wishes] permits much more flexibility to. . . the trustee, who has more flexibility built into the trust instrument to exercise powers consistently with the intent of the settlor, rather than at the precise direction of the settlor, which was usually expressed in the vacuum of unknown and unanticipated events.”).
[5] Christensen, supra note 4, at 185.
[6] See Wakeman & Fratcher, supra note 1.
[7] 602 N.E.2d 33 (Ill. Ct. App. 1992).
[8] Note that the Hugh court referred to the grantor’s letters as “letters of direction” as opposed to “letters of wishes.” That said, the grantor’s “letter of direction” served essentially the same purpose that a letter of wishes would have.
[9] Id. at 35.
[10] Id. at 35–37.
[11] Bove, supra note 2 at 40; Deborah S. Gordon, Letters Non-Testamentary, 62 U. Kan. L. Rev. 585, 589 (2014).
[12] Both precatory language and ambiguity should be avoided in trust instruments. Trusts with patent or latent ambiguities are subject to having extrinsic evidence used in interpretation. See Koulogeorge v. Campbell, 983 N.E.2d 1066, 1073 (Ill. App. Ct. 2012). Further, including precatory language in a trust runs the risk that the preacatory terms will not be binding on the trustee. See Duvall v. LaSalle Nat. Bank, 523 N.E.2d 974 (Ill. Ct. App. 1988).
[13] See infra § 3(a).
[14] 907 P.2d 794 (Idaho 1995).
[15] See Bove, supra note 2, at 43.
[16] Id. at 43–44 (“Binding instructions on the trustee can interfere with the concept of full discretion and undermine or diminish the opportunity of exercising that judgment. If such instructions are that important and inflexible, they should be included in the body of the trust. . .”); Christensen, supra note 4, at 183–84.
[17] Gordon, supra note 10, at 616.
[18] Christensen, supra note 4, at 183–84. This lack of case law may also be explained by the fact that letters of wishes are likely to be considered non-discoverable trust documents. As such, beneficiaries are unlikely to see letters of wishes unless the trustee voluntarily discloses them.
[19] Id. at 184 (describing how letters of wishes are widely used and that trustees often fulfill their duties as outlined in letters of wishes).
[20] Restatement (Third) of Trusts § 87 cmt. 3 (2007); Bove, supra note 2, at 43–44; Christensen, supra note 4, at 184; Steven M. Fast and Steven G. Margolin, Whose Trust is it Anyway?, SM001 ALI-ABA 187, 199-200 (2006).
[21] Note that some foreign jurisdictions legally require a trustee to consider a letter of wishes in making trust distributions. That said, these jurisdictions do not require the trustee to make discretionary distributions in accordance with the letters nor do the letters create any additional duty for the trustee. Bove, supra note 2, at 41; see also, Anguilla Trusts Ordinance 1994 §13(4); Belize Trusts Act 1992 §13(4); and Niue Trusts Act 1994, §14(4).
[22] Restatement (Third) of Trusts § 87 cmt. 3 (2007); see also Bove, supra note 2 at 42.
[23] Citizens Nat. Bank of Paris v. Kids Hope United, Inc. 922 N.E.2d 1093 (Ill. 2009).
[24] Koulogeorge v. Campbell, 983 N.E.2d 1066 (Ill. App. Ct. 2012).
[25] Stein v. Scott, 625 N.E.2d 713 (Ill. App. Ct. 1993).
[26] Ruby v. Ruby, 973 N.E.2d 36 (Ill. App. Ct. 2012).
[27] 638 N.E.2d 729 (Ill. App. Ct. 1994). However, the court suggested that if the letter, will, trust, and quitclaim deeds had been executed simultaneously, the letter could indicate an ambiguity for which extrinsic evidence could be admitted to determine the decedent’s intent. The Idaho Supreme Court dealt with a similar issue, but decided differently in Matter of Estate of Kirk. 907 P.2d 794 (Idaho 1995). In Kirk, the court allowed a settlor’s handwritten note to be considered for purposes of construing her previously executed trust agreement. Id.
[28] See Fla. Stat. Ann. § 736.0804 (2017) (requiring a trustee to “administer the trust as a prudent person would, by considering the purposes, terms, distribution requirements, and other circumstances of the trust.”) (emphasis added).
[29] 152 So.3d 628, 631–32 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2014). Note, however, that the grantor’s letter differed from a standard letter of wishes as it was delivered to the trustee during the grantor’s lifetime pursuant to the trust instrument’s provision allowing her to direct the trust to make payments as requested. Id. at 629–30.
[30] See e.g., Baker v. Wilburn, 456 N.W.2d 304, 306 (S.D.1990) (“[W]hen two or more instruments are executed at the same time by the same parties, for the same purpose and as part of the same transaction, the court must consider and construe the instruments as one contract.”).
[31] Wakeman & Fratcher, supra note 1; Bove, supra note 2, at 38.
[32] Gordon, supra note 10, at 617.
[33] Kritchman v. Wolk, 152 So.3d 628, 630–31 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2014) (describing trustee/defendant’s position that the terms of the trust nullified all of the grantor’s written directives).
[34] See id. at 615 (“These letters, which in general avoid theatricality for simplicity and performance for connection, reinforce the social relationship between writer and recipient without disrupting the estate plan or manipulating the beneficiaries.”).
[35] Unif. Trust Code § 602; see also, Colo. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 15-16-702; Fla. Stat. Ann. § 736.0602(3)(b)(2); Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. § 700.7602; Mont. Code Ann. § 72-38-602; ; N.H. Rev. Stat. § 564-B:6-602;  Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 5806.02; S.C. Code Ann § 62-7-602; Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 4-10-602.
[36] Parish v. Parish, 193 N.E.2d 761, 766 (Ill. 1963).
[37] Id.; Northwestern University v. McLoraine, 438 N.E.2d 1369 (Ill. App. Ct. 1982).
[38] Robert S. Hunter, § 213:23. Amending the trust agreement, 19 Ill. Prac., Estate Planning & Admin (4th ed. 2016).
[39] Supra § 3(d).
[40] Wis. Stat. Ann. § 701.0602 (2017).
[41] Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 386A.2-020 (2017).
[42] Unif. Trust Code § 602.
[43] Gordon, supra note 17, at 617.
[44] Bove, supra note 2, at 39.
[45] See e.g., Matter of Estate of Kirk, 907 P.2d 794 (Idaho 1995) (describing a conflict between potential beneficiaries over changes in their interests in the decedent’s trust caused by decedent’s handwritten letter attached to a trust amendment).


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