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What is a living will?

If you’re looking into end-of-life planning, you might have heard of a document called a living will. While it isn’t essential to have one, it can give you peace of mind about your future medical care. Some people are unsure about what a living will is and how it differs from other documents such as a last will or a living trust. Below, we explain all of this, as well as how to write a living will and what to include.

What is a living will and how does it work?

Sadly, there are some cases where you could be in a critically ill state and decisions need to be made about whether to continue or withhold treatment. If you are incapacitated, you aren’t able to communicate your wishes. A living will is a document that provides instructions on what you would like to happen in these circumstances. 

The “living will” was developed so that a competent person can indicate in writing whether or not they want life-sustaining medical treatment withheld in certain circumstances. Most states have adopted a statutory form, and important details of these forms vary from state to state. But in general, a living will becomes effective in the event that a person becomes incapacitated and a doctor determines that their condition is incurable or will result in death in the short term. In some states, the forms also apply if a person has developed late-stage dementia. 

Drawing up a living will in advance as part of your end-of-life planning gives you peace of mind that your wishes will be honored if a situation like this arises.

What’s the difference between an advance directive and a living will?

You may also have heard the term ‘advance directive’ — this is the same thing as a living will. It can also be called a healthcare directive, or simply a directive. Regardless of the name, the document allows you to state in advance what kinds of medical treatment and life-sustaining measures you want to receive in the event that you are in a life-threatening condition and incapable of communicating your wishes.

What happens if you have no living will?

If you don’t have a living will and become incapacitated, then it will fall to your loved ones and doctors to make the decisions. This can be stressful and painful for loved ones, as they try to guess what you would want them to do. Expensive and prolonged disputes can also arise about the best course of action to take. 

The difference between a living will and other end-of-life documents

While a living will might sound similar to a will or a living trust, it is a separate document with its own functions. 

Living will vs will

A last will and testament, typically simply called a will, contains your instructions regarding the disposition of your property after you die. As the name indicates, a “living will” only applies while you are still alive, and it has no impact on your property.  

Living will vs living trust

A living will is also different to a living trust. A living will covers information on medical care, whereas a living trust is a legal mechanism to own certain property during your lifetime. It assigns a trustee to take responsibility for managing your assets in the interests of an eventual beneficiary. 

Living will vs power of attorney

There are two main types of powers of attorney. 

  • A durable power of attorney allows you to name a trusted individual to manage your property in the event that you become incapacitated. 
  • A health care power of attorney allows you to name a trusted individual to make health care decisions on your behalf in the event that you become incapacitated. 

A living will, on the other hand, allows you to communicate your end-of-life healthcare instructions in the event that you become incapacitated and the end is near. Living wills and health care power of attorney documents are often created at the same time. In some states, the living will and health care power of attorney are combined into one document.

How to make a living will

Different states have their own requirements for creating a legally valid living will. Usually, there’s a form to fill in that must have witnesses and/or be notarized. Living wills are part of the standard package of end-of-life legal documents that an attorney can prepare for you. 

What do you put in a living will?

It’s your choice what you would like to include in your living will. You might want to cover every type of treatment or life-sustaining mechanism to ensure that your family doesn't have to make any difficult decisions. Or you might want to focus on a couple of things that are particularly important to you. Below are some types of care you can leave instructions about in your living will:

  • Use of breathing tubes or ventilators
  • Use of feeding tubes 
  • Blood transfusions
  • Use of a dialysis machine
  • Use of pain medications
  • Organ donation preferences
  • Use of antibiotics or antiviral medications
  • Instructions on whether to carry out CPR

What to do with your living will

Once you have made your living will, you should keep it safe and make sure the right people can access it. Store original copies in a secure place — perhaps with the rest of your end-of-life documents. Provide your doctor and your health care proxy with a copy each. It’s also a good idea to keep a small card with the main details of your living will in your wallet and take a copy of the full document with you when traveling.

In addition to your doctor and healthcare proxy, it’s good for family members and friends to be aware of your wishes should the worst happen. You might want to speak with other people in your life and let them know what you have included in your living will.

Do living wills need to be updated?

You may want to review your living will if you have been diagnosed with a new condition, as this could affect your healthcare needs. A change in marital status or family circumstance is another common reason for changing a living will.

Even if nothing significant changes, it can be a good idea to review your living will around every 10 years, to make sure that it still reflects your wishes. If you do update it, remember to destroy copies of the old living will and redistribute new ones.

Creating your living will

None of us like to imagine being in a situation where we would need urgent medical care. But knowing that you have a living will in place can be a comfort. If you’d like to make one, start thinking about what you would like to include, and find out what the state requirements are.

There may be other end-of-life documents that you would like to arrange at the same time, for example, a health care power attorney, a last will and testament, and a letter of instruction. Our complete end-of-life planning guide tells you what you need and provides lots of useful information to help you get your affairs in order.

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