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Sometimes known more formally as an advance directive, a living will is a document that provides your wishes regarding medical care near the end of your life. Unlike a traditional last will and testament that determines how your assets and property will be distributed for estate planning purposes, a living will is a legal document that explicitly states how you want to be cared for when it comes to end-of-life treatment.

Learning how to do a living will is vitally important, as it ensures that there are legally-enforceable health care directives in place if and when you are unable to provide them on your own. So, in today's article, we will provide you with a step-by-step guide for how to make a living will, provide you with some useful resources, and answer some important questions about living wills in general.

How to Make a Living Will: A Step-by-Step Guide

How to make a living will step by step

Though living wills are just as important as last will and testament forms, they are generally far less complicated. You simply need to choose what kind of treatment or care you want, designate a health care proxy to ensure that your living will is carried out, make sure that your document adheres to any state regulations, and notarize the final document. We will go into more detail about each of these steps below.

Consider the Best Treatment Options for You

Ultimately, a living will is all about deciding how you want to live out your final days. Just as importantly, it allows you to choose exactly what procedures or actions you want to be taken in the event that you are incapacitated or unable to make medical decisions for yourself. This generally means that you will need to make your feelings clear about different treatment options and considerations, including but not limited to:

  • Life support
  • Life-sustaining treatments
  • Body preservation and contribution (organ donation, burial or cremation instructions, etc.)
  • Surgery
  • Hospitalization
  • Caregiving
  • Palliative care
  • Quality of life (how you define it)
  • Natural death (how much effort should be made to keep you alive if you are gravely ill)
  • Cost of care

Quick Tip: It is important to be specific and express how you feel about different kinds of end-of-life treatments and caregiving so that your loved ones can understand your perspective and be better prepared to respect your wishes.

Choose a Health Care Proxy

A health care proxy is a person who is given medical power of attorney if you are incapacitated or are reaching the end of life. Typically, people choose a child, spouse, relative, friend, or a trusted loved one as their health care proxy. You should also name alternative options in the event that your first choice is unwilling or unable to uphold the responsibilities.

Research State-Specific Guidelines

Many states provide a free living will template that you can download through the relevant state department. For example, you can find a printable living will pdf form for California via the state DOJ website. However, the forms provided by your state of residence may not meet your exact needs or circumstances. Therefore, you are allowed to create your own living will document as long as it provides all of the correct information and meets the necessary requirements outlined by your state. Many hospitals and other medical facilities may also offer advance directive forms.

Finalize and Notarize Your Living Will

Before you can consider your living will completed, you should speak with your doctor, your loved ones, and your attorney to ensure that it is enforceable. In most cases, any physical document that makes clear statements about your health care or end-of-life wishes and includes your full name and signature is considered a living will. However, it is extremely important to get your living will notarized by a licensed notary.

FYI: Depending on the state in which you live, you may also need to have up to two people as witnesses of the signing (in addition to the notary).

What to Do After You’ve Written Your Living Will

What to do after you've written your living will

After you've followed all of the steps above, the hard part is over. That said, a living will is no good if it gets lost or you're the only one aware of it. For this reason, it is important to store your will in a safe place. If you have a safety deposit box or even a storage unit, you may consider keeping your living will there. Just make sure that your health care proxy and alternative proxies are aware of the document's existence and how to access it if necessary.

You should always make more than one copy of your living will. Ideally, you should have one copy that is readily accessible, the original stored in a safe place, and one or more copies for your health care proxy and/or attorney. This way, it ensures that multiple people are aware of the document's existence, and it can be quickly accessed in the event of a sudden medical emergency.

Quick Tip: Want to learn more about the other aspects of estate planning? Visit our full estate planning guide for all the details.

Finally, it's important to remember that living wills are not written in stone (literally or figuratively). You can and should revisit your living will from time to time, usually once every two to three years. This way, you can be sure that it still reflects your interests and wishes. If not, you will need to make changes and have the new document notarized. Alternatively, you can start from scratch with a new living will — just be sure that the old will (and any copies) are destroyed.

Resources for Writing a Living Will

If you are worried about writing your own living will, you can always turn to a third-party service to help manage the details. In addition to an attorney, there are various services that allow you to efficiently produce a living will at an affordable price:

  • NOLO's Quicken WillMaker & Trust – Computer software for legal document creation and revision, including living wills, power of attorneys, and estate planning documents. The standard fee for service is a one-time payment of $99.99.
  • Trust & Will – Service that automatically includes customized last will and testament forms, a living will template (based on your state of residence), and power of attorney, in addition to various other estate planning tools. The service starts at $159 with revisions available at additional costs.
  • DoYourOwnWill – Service for a wide variety of trust- and will-related documents, from guardianship forms to living wills. All document creations and revisions are available free of charge.
  • TotalLegal – While this service caters to business documents, it also provides dozens of legal documents for individuals. Prices vary, as you can choose a monthly or annual subscription ($9.95 per month or $89 per year), or you can pay per document (currently $19.95 each).
  • Willing – Standard last will and testament creation service, with the option to add on additional documents (like a living will). The price for all document creation is currently a one-time payment of $69.
  • FreeWill – Free will and estate planning creation service that also makes it easy to revise documents and plan for charitable donations. With FreeWill's instructional help, you can learn how to make a living will free of charge in a matter of minutes.

Watch the video below with our Editor-in-Chief, Jeff Hoyt, to learn more about living wills.

Other Frequently Asked Questions About Making a Living Will

  • What should be included in a living will?

    At a minimum, you should include your name, the date of document creation, a summation of your wishes for end-of-life care, and a signature in your living will. Naturally, you may wish to add specific details related to your health or circumstances. For example, if you do not wish to receive chemotherapy or you want your doctors to attempt experimental treatments if necessary, you should note it clearly in the document.

  • How much does a living will cost?

    If you’re looking to save money as a senior, you can create your own living will. Assuming you make your own, you will only need to pay for the notary services and copies. In this case, you should expect to pay somewhere between $50 to $100. If you enlist a lawyer or a living will creation service, the cost will more than double, with most living wills costing roughly $300 to $500 (not including revisions).

  • Does a living will need to be notarized?

    Yes, a living will needs to be notarized. This ensures that the document has been authenticated in an official manner that can be recognized in a court of law.

  • How do you make a living will without a lawyer?

    You can learn how to make a living will without a lawyer by using a living will template and a notary. You will also need to check for any guidelines or requirements for your state of residence. Otherwise, you can quickly and easily create a living will without consulting a lawyer, though many people still choose to hire an attorney to ensure that their living will sufficiently meets their needs.

Written By

Jeff Hoyt

Editor in Chief

Since graduating from Harvard with an honors degree in Statistics, Jeff has been creating content in print, online, and on television. Much of his work has been dedicated to informing seniors on how to live better lives. As Editor-in-Chief of the personal… Learn More About Jeff Hoyt

  1. State of California Department of Justice. (2022). End of Life Care Planning.