What Is a Living Will? by Belle Wong

What Is a Living Will?

A living will states your preferences for end-of-life medical care if you are not in a condition to communicate your wishes.

by Belle Wong
updated March 30, 2021 · 4 min read

A living will is a document that sets out your preferences for end-of-life medical care and treatment. While it's an important document to have, it requires you to give serious consideration to what kinds of medical treatment you'd like to receive—or wouldn't like—in an end-of-life scenario.

These are tough decisions that can lead people to procrastinate on taking steps to create a living will, but it's important to be prepared for any eventualities.

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What Is a Living Will and Why Is It Important to Have One?

A living will, also known by a number of different names, such as health care declaration or health care directive, is a type of advance directive that lets you set out the type of end-of-life care you wish to receive.

For example, if you have a living will and you fall into a coma after an accident, or you otherwise suffer a medical event that makes you unable to communicate your treatment preferences, your health care team would be able to rely on your living will to determine the type of life-sustaining treatment you'd want to have if you were able to communicate your wishes.

Having a living will is also helpful for your family members. During a time when they will most likely be distraught and anxious over your medical condition, your living will removes the medical decision-making burden that would otherwise be placed on them.

People often pair a living will with a durable power of attorney for health care. This document, also known as a medical power of attorney, is a type of advance directive in which you appoint someone as your health care agent or representative to make your medical decisions for you in the event you become incapacitated and can no longer do so.

If you choose to use a durable power of attorney as well as a living will, your living will can help guide your health care agent to make the right treatment decisions for you.

What Is the Difference Between a Will and a Living Will?

Despite having the word "will" in its name, a living will bears no similarity to a traditional will—also known as "last will and testament." A will is an estate planning document that determines how your property will be disposed of in the event of your death, while a living will deals only with health care and treatment decisions.

By its nature, a will also doesn't come into effect until after your death. A living will, on the other hand, is only effective prior to your death and terminates at your death—with the exception of after-death medical decisions such as organ donation and autopsies.

How To Create a Living Will

It's not difficult to set up a living will. You can go the DIY route using forms you can download online, or you can consult with an estate planning attorney who can draft your living will for you. If you are creating your living will yourself using a form or template, it's important to keep in mind that legal requirements for living wills vary from state to state, so it's essential that you download the right form for your state.

In preparing your living will, you will need to make various end-of-life care decisions. For example, you can state your preferences about treatment and care, such as:

  • Life-sustaining treatment. If there are certain life-sustaining treatments you'd like to receive—for example, a ventilator if you are unable to breathe on your own, or CPR if your heart stops beating—you should state this in your living will. Conversely, you should also state what medical treatments you do not wish to receive.
  • Tube feeding. In the event you fall into a vegetative state, one important issue is whether or not you want to receive food and water, either through IVs or via tube feeding. This is an intensely personal decision, because tube feeding can keep someone who is in a permanent vegetative or unconscious state alive for a long period of time.
  • Pain management and other palliative care. These decisions deal not with sustaining or prolonging your life, but rather your quality of life and comfort as you near death. In addition to pain medications, palliative care can include decisions about where you will spend your last days, and whether or not you want to undergo aggressive or otherwise invasive treatment or tests for secondary conditions such as viral or bacterial infections.

In order to finalize your living will, you may need witnesses, a notary, or perhaps both, depending on your state's requirements. And once you have your living will prepared and finalized, it's important that you give copies to your health care providers. You should also keep the original in a safe place and make sure that family members know and have access to the document as well.

It can be difficult to think about a potential future end-of-life situation and the type of medical care you'd like to receive if such a situation occurs. Having a living will prepared will help to ensure that your health care team knows what your medical preferences are and remove the burden of such difficult decision-making from your loved ones.

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Belle Wong

About the Author

Belle Wong

Belle Wong, J.D., is a freelance writer specializing in small business, personal finance, and marketing topics. Connect … Read more