You don't have to take a blood oath to write a character letter, but you are co-signing for that person's motivations, past behavior and potential future actions. Anyone facing a judicial hearing, attempting to rent a new home or seeking promotions or security clearances also needs a character letter.
What Is a Character Letter?
A character letter is a legal document and a sworn statement with or without a notary seal. The person writing the character letter may be charged with perjury if it contains lies. If your contact has consisted of business transactions, you can say "I've been doing business with X for 27 years. In that time, he has never bounced a check, has always honored his contracts and his payments have always arrived early." Unless you have interacted socially, avoid statements that do not pertain to business.
Character letters carry the most weight when the person writing the letter has had daily contact with the person requesting it. Federal Judge Mark Bennett states that he would "much rather have a letter from a street sweeper or a janitor" who has known the person standing in court for years than hear from a person with higher status "who may be writing the letter as a favor to the family."
Protect yourself from misuse of your letter by addressing it to a specific person, such as the judge in the hearing, the committee member in charge of the security clearance investigation or the officer in charge of the performance review.
How to Write a Character Letter
- Provide your contact information. Include the best time to call you.
- State what you know about why the person needs the character letter. Include what you know about the charges the person faces.
- State how long you have known the person under scrutiny. Describe how you met. Were you neighbors? Did you do business together? Did you attend the same schools or religious institutions? Were you members of the same community organizations?
Avoid telling a judge how to rule if the character letter is for sentencing or parole hearings.
Character Letter Examples
Security Clearance Character Letter:
Dear Senator Abernathy:
I need a new liaison for local affairs. Lieutenant John Andrews served under my command for 12 years. Andrews never discussed confidential matters with unauthorized persons or allowed documents to fall into the wrong hands. I am confident that he will exercise that same care in the future.
Colonel Robert J. Trout
Rental Application Character Letter:
Dear Lila O'Dell:
Jeremy and Laura Chapman have been my tenants at 2913 Beach Boulevard for 11 years. They have always paid their rent on time. The neighborhood association has sent me a letter every year, praising the curb appeal of the front yard. I have never had a single complaint from their neighbors or any local authorities. I believe they will be great tenants for you as well.
Mada K. Morton
Court Sentencing Character Letter:
I have known Jason Pendergrast for 19 years. We grew up together and attended McClure Elementary School from 1972 to 1978. My family moved to Houston, Texas that year, but we returned to Philadelphia three years later. Jason and I attended Patrick Henry High School together. We maintained our friendship through college and ran the hardware store together.
Jason told me about the charges against him. I am fully confident that his altercation with the plaintiff arose from the heat of the moment. He called me first that evening, distraught. He expressed deep regret at having to shoot the intruder. I have seen the security footage, and I know that he bore no malice or grudge toward the victim. If the victim had not pointed a gun at Jason's head while demanding the cash Jason was counting, he would not be in a wheelchair today.
Elizabeth Allen, co-owner, Bristol Street Hardware