What Is a Living Will?

What Is a Living Will?

living will is a document that explains whether or not you want to be kept on life support if you become terminally ill and will die shortly without life support, or fall into a persistent vegetative state. It also addresses other important questions, detailing your preferences for tube feeding, artificial hydration, and pain medication in certain situations. A living will becomes effective only when you cannot communicate your desires on your own.

A living will is usually limited to the refusal of, or desire for, medical treatment in the event of:

  • a terminal illness
  • an injury, or
  • permanent unconsciousness

In the event you are unable to communicate your desires in such situations and do not have a living will, doctors or hospitals may decide they are legally obligated to perform certain procedures that you would not desire. If your spouse, adult child or another relative is called upon to make a decision about your care, he or she will find it helpful if you have expressed your wishes in a living will. A living will tells others what you want to happen in such circumstances.

You may see a living will called by other names, such as:

  • a declaration regarding life-prolonging procedures;
  • an advance directive; or,
  • a declaration.

Living Will Compared to a Last Will and Testament

It is important not to confuse a living will with a last will. A last will and testament expresses what you want to happen to your property and minor children if you die. A living will expresses what you want to happen to your person regarding medical treatment while you are still alive.

If you want to create a living will, LegalZoom can help.

  • Introduction to Living Wills
    Modern life support systems can keep an individual's body alive for years, even if that person has no brain activity or is in constant pain. As competent adults, we have a constitutional right to make decisions about whether or not we want life support to continue when death is imminent or when a...
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  • Definition of a Living Will
    A living will is a document that outlines specific medical instructions to be applied if you are alive but are unable to communicate your wishes for yourself. Unlike last wills, they have nothing to do with property division after your death. Rather, they state that you do (or do not) want...
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  • Healthcare Power of Attorney
    A healthcare agent is a person whom you are trusting to make medical decisions on your behalf if you can't make them for yourself. Choosing your agent is an important decision, and you should think carefully about who you want to assume this responsibility. This person may one day be deciding...
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  • Revoking or Canceling a Living Will
    A living will can be canceled or revoked at any time. The revocation is effective when you (or someone else who witnessed your revocation) communicate it to your attending physician or healthcare provider. You can also cancel your living will by destroying it or by indicating, in writing, that it...
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  • Witnesses to a Living Will
    Because of the gravity of the decisions associated with a living will and the potential severity of the results, a living will must be witnessed by individuals who can swear that the document reflects the maker's wishes. These witnesses must be independent, and can't have an interest in receiving...
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  • Pregnancy and Living Wills
    Most state laws will not let you (or someone acting on your behalf) refuse life-extending medical procedures if you are pregnant. In such cases, your living will can be disregarded, unless there is no chance the fetus will survive.    
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