What is a living will?
It’s not easy to think about end-of-life planning, but making your wishes known before an unexpected injury or illness happens will help your loved ones to navigate stressful and complicated decisions regarding your health care preferences.
If you have specific requests about which treatments you receive, whether you want to be an organ donor, or if you want to be resuscitated if your heart stops, create a living will to document your choices in the event of a medical emergency.
What is a Living Will?
A living will (also called an advance directive) is a legal document you use to make health care decisions for yourself if you become unable to communicate them, such as if you lose consciousness or mental capacity due to an accident or serious illness.
Doctors and other health care providers use your living will to understand your preferences surrounding medical procedures and treatments like organ and tissue donation, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), and palliative care.
A living will doesn’t come into effect until you become incapacitated and ends upon your death.
In some states, you can also use a living will to name a health care proxy or agent to make medical decisions on your behalf. In other states, you will need to create a separate document called a medical power of attorney to name a health care agent.
To ensure that you’re following state laws and that your living will is enforceable, consult an estate planning attorney or use a template that is customized for your jurisdiction.
What Can You Include in a Living Will?
A living will is used to document your treatment decisions and preferences in the event of your incapacitation. The most common topics addressed in a living will include:
A living will is the best way to indicate to medical professionals whether you want to be resuscitated if your heart stops. Resuscitation may include CPR, defibrillation, and heart-stimulating drugs. If you don’t want to be resuscitated, you can use your living will as a do not resuscitate (DNR) order.
If you don’t outline your preferences regarding resuscitation, either through a living will or a formal DNR order, emergency responders and medical staff will attempt to resuscitate you when possible.
2. Organ and Tissue Donation
Although you don’t have to use a living will to sign up to be an organ donor, you can use one to list your preferences if you haven’t addressed them elsewhere. As with most organ donation registries, a living will allows you to choose which organs and tissues you would like to donate.
3. Medical Treatments
If you’re opposed to certain medical procedures, or you would prefer to avoid treatments that may affect your quality of life after being diagnosed with a terminal illness, you can specify them in your living will.
For example, you may choose to specify whether you want to receive chemotherapy after a cancer diagnosis or dialysis after being diagnosed with a serious kidney disease.
4. Palliative Care and End-of-Life Wishes
Palliative care (also called comfort care, end-of-life care, and hospice care) refers to the care you receive at the end of a terminal illness or medical condition. Palliative care patients don’t have long life expectancies and can use a living will to make choices about how they want to spend their last days, such as:
- Whether they want to receive pain medication and what kind
- If they want to die at home or in a hospital
- If they want to stay in a specific palliative care facility (for example, one that’s close to family members)
5. Life Support
In the event of permanent or temporary unconsciousness (vegetative state), a living will documents your preferences regarding life-sustaining treatments, such as whether you want to be kept alive via a feeding tube using artificial nutrition and hydration or mechanical ventilation (a breathing machine).
What Can’t You Include in a Living Will?
It’s important to note that a living will only addresses medical care and treatment preferences related to your personal health. It cannot be used to make financial decisions, distribute property, or name guardians for children or pets. Those functions are instead covered by a typical will.
Some states allow you to include a health care proxy or agent in your living will while others don’t.
Why It Is Important to Have a Living Will
Although advance care planning may not sound like a pleasant task, it actually comes with a lot of benefits to both you and your loved ones. For example, creating a living will enables you to:
1. Ensure Your Wishes Are Followed
If you have specific opinions when it comes to the medical procedures you do or don’t want to receive — whether they’re based on your religious beliefs or simply personal preference — having a living will helps to enforce them.
Even if a health care professional or loved one doesn’t agree with your choice to decline a specific treatment or to refuse life support, they will be obligated to respect a valid living will, barring any legal issues or extraneous circumstances.
2. Guide Your Loved Ones
In the event of a life-threatening emergency or terminal illness, emotions run high. It can be extremely difficult for your family members and loved ones to make serious decisions about your health and wellness if they don’t know what your preferences are.
A living will helps to mitigate some of the stress by taking the heavy responsibility of being a decision-maker out of the hands of those you care about. They won’t have to make choices for you. Instead, they’ll communicate your own decisions to health care providers.
3. Have Comprehensive Estate Plans
A living will is one part of a comprehensive estate plan, which includes a last will and testament, power of attorney, and letter of instruction. In combination with a living will, these documents help to address your end-of-life plans, including how you want your assets to be distributed, who you want to manage your financial affairs, how to access your accounts, and what your personal health care wishes are.
To ensure that your end-of-life plans cover everything from your medical preferences to who your beneficiaries are, create an advance directive alongside these other important estate planning documents.
How to Create a Living Will
You can create a valid living will using a few different methods:
Using an Attorney
You can hire an estate planning attorney to draft a customized living will for you, based on your state’s laws and requirements. This option is the most costly but makes sense for those who have very specific requests or who want to outline their preferences and name a health care agent.
Using Legal Document Software
Many legal document software platforms offer living wills specific to each state, including LegalTemplates and FormSwift. This is a good option for anyone who wants to customize their document to some extent without having to go through a lawyer.
From a Local Nursing Home or Hospital
Many hospitals, nursing homes, and physicians’ offices offer free living will templates to their patients and residents. Once complete, you can give it back to them so that it can be stored with the rest of your medical records.
You can also create a living will for free through the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) or you can visit POLST, which provides free information and resources for both advance directives and portable medical orders.
Although these documents typically follow state laws, they aren’t always as customizable as a template from an attorney or legal software platform. However, they’re ideal for people with straightforward and common requests.
After You Create a Living Will
Simply creating a living will document doesn’t make it valid. In some states, it will need to be signed by two witnesses as well as a notary. In others, it may only require one or the other.
It’s also important to remember that some jurisdictions treat living wills and durable power of attorney for health care documents differently. If you want to both outline your medical preferences and name a health care agent, you may need to create separate documents that each have their own witness and notarization requirements.
Once you have executed your living will, copies should be given to:
- Your caregiver or home health aid
- Your doctor
- Staff at your nursing home or care facility
- Your hospital
- Your health care agent or medical attorney-in-fact
- Relevant family members
Giving your advance directive forms to the right people ensures that your documents will be accessible and available when they matter most.
If you need to update or change a living will after it’s been distributed, it’s best to formally revoke the previous document by creating a living will or advance directive revocation. This should be given to the same people you initially gave your living will to. Make sure to ask for any existing copies of the living will you would like to revoke so that you can destroy them.
Once you have created a new living will, redistribute it to the relevant parties.
Although you can’t control when you die, you can have a say in how you go. A living will not only guides your loved ones and health care providers during an emergency or urgent care situation, but it also helps to give you some control over the end of your life.
If you have personal preferences in relation to medical treatments and procedures, it’s important to make them known before you’re unable to do so. Creating a living will ensures your wishes are respected, giving you a voice when you would otherwise be without one.