Do I need a living will?

A living will is an important document every adult should complete with thoughtfulness and care. Doing so protects not only you but your family as well.

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by Brette Sember, J.D.
updated March 08, 2023 ·  2min read

A living will can be an important part of planning for the future. Understanding exactly what a living will is and what protections it offers can help you make informed decisions.

What is a living will?

A living will is different from your last will and testament which distributes your property after you die. A living will determines how decisions will be made about your medical care during your lifetime, at times when you are able to speak for yourself.

Living wills are used in situations where you are incapacitated, mentally incompetent, or unable to communicate. A living will is sometimes also called an advance directive, advance healthcare directive, health care directive, or advance medical directive.

Provisions of a living will

The living will definition is a document that specifies your wishes about medical care. This can include withholding of lifesaving treatments, use of pain medication, withholding of nutrition and hydration, and removal of life support.

A living will may also contain a provision naming a person to make medical decisions on your behalf if you are unable to (this is sometimes a separate document called a health care power of attorney or a health care proxy).

Living wills sometimes contain directives about the patient’s goals when it comes to quality of life as well as directions about personal hygiene, modesty, and spiritual or religious instructions.

Do I need a living will?

While it can be hard to think about the decisions and situations involved, a living will is a document that every adult can benefit from. People who are living with a terminal illness or are about to have surgery have an urgent need to complete a living will.

If you do not have a living will and you become incapacitated and unable to make your own decisions, your physicians will turn to your closest family members (spouse, then children) for decisions. This can place a heavy burden on family members and can also cause rifts within the family if there is disagreement.

Your family may not know your wishes or feel unsure about what to do. Living wills are particularly important because in many states your family will not have full authority to make all decisions for you without it. In some cases, a court order will be required to end life support, which can be expensive and heart-wrenching. In some situations, the physician can decide which family member’s viewpoint is the one to follow.

How to create a living will

Each state has a living will form or specifics about what a living will should include. When making a living will be sure to understand your state’s requirements so that your living will is enforceable. To create a living will, you should complete the form with all of your wishes.

The more specific you can be, the better. If you choose someone to make decisions on your behalf, be sure to talk over your wishes in advance so this person understands what you would want.

Sign the living will in the presence of witnesses and make sure you give a copy to your primary care physician and keep a copy in a safe place at home. You can revise your living will at any time by completing a new document. Be sure to replace all old versions and destroy them.

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Brette Sember, J.D.

About the Author

Brette Sember, J.D.

Brette Sember, J.D., practiced law in New York, including divorce, mediation, family law, adoption, probate and estates,… Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.