A Guide to Living Wills

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No one likes to think about, let alone looks forward to discussing, their end-of-life medical treatment. But the more prepared you are ahead of time, the easier it'll be for you and your family. This is why a living will is so important: It's a legal document that lets you specify your health care wishes in the event you become incapacitated and unable to communicate. It should be considered a crucial part of an estate plan, which is an overarching term that covers numerous documents, including wills, trusts, powers of attorney and beneficiary forms.1

While this topic may be uncomfortable, knowing that you've expressed your decisions for your final medical care in writing will undoubtedly give you peace of mind. Moreover, it will help alleviate confusion and turmoil among your heirs and other family members during an already emotional time. This article gives an overview of the importance of drafting a living will, how it differs from a last will and testament, advance directives, and other future medical care considerations. We'll also offer a few resources to get you started.

What Is a Living Will?

A living will, sometimes referred to as an advanced health care directive, is a legal document that indicates one's preferences and medical directions in the event that they become seriously ill or incapable of giving these directions themselves. Such matters often include decisions involving feeding and breathing tubes, the use of life support, and other life-sustaining medical treatments. You can also appoint an individual to communicate decisions with medical personnel based on the will through a health care power of attorney.

Two people looking at a will

FYI: A durable power of attorney is a document that appoints an individual to act as the senior's agent. This individual can be a friend, family member, or trusted attorney. They are given power to make key decisions about health, finances, and legal matters on behalf of the individual.

What Is Included in a Living Will?

There are many medical decisions to consider when writing your living will, like stipulations on pain management or organ donation. You can also specify how long you want your life prolonged if you become permanently unconscious or reach the end of a terminal illness. Further, you can state that any final medical decisions align with your religious or spiritual beliefs. Below is a list of some of the end-of-life medical topics you may want to talk about with your doctor:

  • CPR: Determine if you'd want to be resuscitated by CPR or defibrillation.
  • Mechanical ventilation: Consider if you'd want to be placed on a ventilator if you're unable to breathe on your own.
  • Tube feeding: Decide if you'd want nutrients and fluids to be supplied via a tube into your stomach.
  • Dialysis: If your kidneys no longer function, would you want to receive dialysis treatment?
  • Antibiotics or antiviral medications: Consider if you want to let doctors perform aggressive treatment to fight infections.
  • Palliative care: Determine which kinds of options you'd prefer for physical comfort and ease of pain. This can include whether or not you'd like to receive medication and/or be given invasive tests or treatments, provided ice chips for mouth dryness, or even being allowed to pass at home.
  • Organ and tissue donation: If your organs are removed to be donated, you will be kept on life-sustaining treatment until the procedure is finished. You will need to indicate in your living will that you understand the need for this temporary intervention. Contact a local medical school, university, or donation program for information on planned donation for research.2

Living Will vs. Last Will

Most people have heard of a last will (sometimes called last will and testament). The main difference between a living will and last will is that the former gives directions regarding medical care while the person is still alive; the latter, however, directs the distribution of assets after a person's death. A last will goes into effect after the death of the person who's written the will, aka the testator. In the will, the testator names an executor of the estate to administer the will's arrangements. The executor must also take care of paying any taxes or outstanding debts of the estate.3

FYI: Both a living and last will can be changed or revoked at any moment the person is still capable of doing so.

Advance Directive vs. Living Will

An advance directive is a broad category of legal instructions that outline your health care wishes. A living will is one of the many types of documents that fall under the category of advance directives. Unlike the living will, an advance directive isn't limited to directions when one becomes terminally ill, but also includes medical events such as dementia, stroke, and coma.

Did You Know: Every U.S. state varies in their laws on advance directives. For example, some allow verbal advance directives while others do not. There isn't a set universal template for what must be included in an advance directive, so these documents can vary significantly.4

Reasons Why You Need a Living Will

According to a Gallup poll conducted in May 2020, only 45 percent of all Americans have a living will.5 While that's a slight increase from 40 percent in 2005, it still means a majority of Americans are missing out on a chance to let their final medical care wishes be known. Not only is this important for your doctors and other health providers, it also provides guidance and clarity for your heirs and other loved ones. (For a related topic on leaving assets for family members, see our guide on elder law and senior legal matters.) By specifying your arrangements beforehand, you can indicate the type of medical treatment you want – as well as the type you don't. All of which lessen the amount of decision-making your caretakers have to make, and thereby offsetting potential discord about your intentions.

Two people discussing medical options

Pro Tip: Living wills and health care decisions are just one aspect of estate planning. It's also important to make sure your finances are in order. Visit our guide to senior finances for more details.

Resources for Writing a Living Will

You don't necessarily need a lawyer to create a living will, but you should be aware of your state's requirements for creating one if you go on your own. If you're interested in exploring do-it-yourself avenues on creating a living will, there are several online services and resources you can contact, including:

FreeWill

This online service offers a host of estate planning tools and professionally-looking legal forms – including living wills – that you can prepare yourself for free. Once you complete and print out the forms, FreeWill will provide a set of easy-to-follow instructions on how to finalize your documents.

FindLaw

FindLaw outlines laws and requirements for executing an end-of-life or medical care document for each of the 50 states.

LegalZoom

LegalZoom is another do-it-yourself online legal service that allows you to create a personalized, state-specific living will. They do charge a fee, however, starting at $39 for a basic living will to a minimum of $179 for their Estate Plan Bundle, which includes access to legal assistance for up to a year.

Nolo's Quicken Willmaker & Trust

You can draft a living will using Nolo's Quicken Willmaker & Trust downloadable software. Its interview-style format is simple to use and is among several estate planning forms you can obtain, including ones for a traditional will and durable power of attorney for health care.

Rocket Lawyer

Rocket Lawyer provides free living will templates. You can also choose to have a lawyer from Rocket Lawyer's network review your document for a fee.

Trust & Will

Living will documents are included as part of Trust & Will's overall Will-Based Estate Plan, which you can access through their online platform. You'll have to pay an additional fee for attorney support; however, shipping of documents is free. Check out our hands-on 2022 Trust & Will review to learn more about this company's services.

Other Frequently Asked Questions About Living Wills

  • What does a living will do?

    A living will is a written, legal document that provides an individual’s instructions regarding their end-of-life medical care while the person is still alive but is incapacitated and unable to communicate their wishes.

  • What kinds of things should be included in a living will?

    Your individual circumstances will determine what you should include in your living will. You can address any number of end-of-life medical issues, including your preferences for life-sustaining treatments, as well as designate a health care durable power of attorney. For more specifics, check out the online services above or consult an attorney.

  • How much does a living will cost?

    Their costs vary depending on the complexity of the documents you need and who prepares them. Attorneys can typically charge a few hundred dollars for a simple living will to $2,000-$3,000 as part of an overall estate planning package. Online legal services will generally be less expensive.

  • Can you have both a living will and a living trust?

    Yes. A living will indicates your preferences regarding your final medical care and treatment if you’re unable to express them. However, the main purpose of a living trust is to allow your beneficiaries access to your assets after you pass and can help you avoid probate court.6

Written By

Monica Dyer

Writer and Copy Editor

Monica Dyer brings over 25 years of journalism experience, with extensive writing and editing on topics ranging from business and insurance to arts and entertainment and, most recently, senior living. Her work affiliations have included USA Today, USA Weekend, and American Visions… Learn More About Monica Dyer

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