What Is A Living Will?

By Temma Ehrenfeld @Temmaehrenfeld
August 24, 2023
What Is A Living Will?

Living wills are important documents about your healthcare that state your wishes about how to handle medical decisions when you can’t make them yourself.

A living will is not the document that governs what happens to your property and finances after you die.

In an ordinary will, sometimes called a last will and testament, you can name a guardian for your children, name an executor, and distribute money and property. The person you name as the executor of your will does not have the power to make decisions about your medical care while you are still alive.

A living will provides instructions for your family and doctors when you’re too sick to make choices about your medical care — for example, if you arrive in the emergency room after an accident and are unconscious.


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The best strategy is to create a living will alongside a document called a durable power of attorney for healthcare, naming a person to make those choices for you. You might also hear the terms healthcare proxy or healthcare agent. People usually name a child, spouse, or sibling, but you could choose a close friend or relative or even your lawyer. You can also appoint a second person as your backup if the first person is unable, unwilling, or unavailable to do the job.

In some states, the two documents are combined in one form called an advanced directive.

If you have both documents, it’s less likely that members of your family, or your family and doctors, will argue over what to do. The living will should state your wishes clearly, and the person with a power of attorney is obligated to apply them to your situation.

Some people feel that they want every chance to survive, even if they will require round-the-clock care. Would you want to live on in a nursing home, needing assistance to eat or get dressed or go to the bathroom? Perhaps that would be okay, as long as you could enjoy music and see your grandchildren.

Try to talk with your loved ones about your wishes. People put the discussion off. Just like parents and teens are shy of talking about sex and drugs, Americans tend to avoid speaking of death. But it’s the right thing to do.

It’s still important to do the paperwork. Let’s say you want every possible effort made to keep you alive — no matter what. You tell your daughter that, but you don’t put it in writing. Now you’re in the hospital. Your doctors think there isn’t much hope for you, and your son is looking for a hospice bed. Your daughter could argue. But you can’t be sure she’ll win the day unless you’ve named her as your power of attorney for healthcare and written a living will.

It’s a good idea to be specific. For instance, say that you should be put on a ventilator if needed — or say that you should never be put on a ventilator unless your doctors see a likelihood that you will survive with a good quality of life.

Your state’s form may ask more detailed questions, such as whether you wish to receive other life-prolonging medical care, such as blood transfusions or CPR, in every situation. Some permanently unconscious patients may survive if they receive food and water through tubes. Is that what you want?

Being specific will help your family make hard choices. Children and spouses often want to keep you alive by every means possible because they haven’t adjusted to the idea that you will be gone. Being specific will also help your family settle any disputes.

If you’re seeing a lawyer to make a will, you can also ask for help with your end-of-life decisions. But you don’t need a lawyer. To get forms, look online for your state’s forms, or ask at a local hospital, senior center, or doctor’s office.

To be valid, your paperwork must meet your state’s requirements. Some states ask for notary stamps, others for witnesses. Depending on the state and your instructions, your living will may take effect only if you can’t communicate — or it may go into effect immediately (although doctors will still try to speak to you, if at all possible).

Your living will could also specify whether you wish to donate organs, have an autopsy, or give your healthcare proxy those decisions.

Keep these forms updated, and think about logistics. If you get divorced, do you want your ex to be responsible for your end-of-life care? If your eldest child moves across the country, it’s a good move to name a child who lives nearby. On the other hand, it’s probably not a good idea to pick someone you’re not really close to just because they’re local.


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August 24, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell