What Is a Living Will?

There is a big difference between a Living Will and a standard Will (also known as a Last Will and Testament). This article will help you distinguish between the two so you can make an informed decision on what you need to plan for the future.

A living will is a legal document that tells others what your personal choices are about end-of-life medical treatment. It lays out the procedures or medications you want, or don’t want, used to prolong your life if you can’t talk with the doctors yourself. This could be because you’re are unconscious from a car accident or other event or under anesthesia for a scheduled surgery and had a complication.

Living Will vs. Will

A will (aka last will and testament) is different from a living will. Your last will explains exactly how you want your property and other assets to be handled after your death and includes family responsibilities, like naming trustees and legal guardians for your children.

Your last will tells people what you want to happen after you die. A living will tells them what you want to happen while you’re still living.

Living Will vs. Advance Directives

While a living will is just one document, advance directives can be made up of several documents. Some of the documents that could be included are: the living will itself, a DNR order (Do Not Resuscitate), directions about organ and tissue donation, specific instructions about a diagnosed illness, and medical power of attorney.

Different states refer to these documents by different names, such as a “directive to physicians,” “advance health care directive,” or a “declaration for a natural death,” but they all serve a similar function—to let doctors know your wishes regarding end-of-life medical procedures if you can’t speak for yourself.

Living Will vs. Medical Power of Attorney

This one is a little different from a living will, because your living will wouldn’t appoint a medical representative—that’s what your medical power of attorney is for. Also known as a “health care proxy,” this person will act as an agent and make medical decisions for you if you can’t talk to the doctors for some reason.

What if your agent and your living will disagree? The doctors are supposed to favor what you’ve written in your living will over what the agent says. But sometimes there will be circumstances you hadn’t considered in your living will, so the agent is there to decide what’s in your best interest.

What Questions are Answered in my Living Will?

There are several questions you will answer in your living will. These questions might be tough to think about, but those who love you will be glad you did:

  • What would you want to happen if you can no longer breathe on your own?
  • If you can no longer feed yourself, how do you feel about feeding tubes?
  • What types of pain management drugs or procedures would you be comfortable with?
  • How do you feel about donating your body or organs after your death?

If you have a special medical condition, you’ll also want to include your choices for other procedures.

When Does a Living Will Go Into Effect?

A living will only works while you are unable to communicate but are still alive. For instance, if you were confused or in a coma because of a head injury, your doctors would want to look at your living will for direction. But the moment you’re able to communicate on your own, your living will is no longer needed and has no authority.

Do You Need a Living Will?

The short answer is yes, everyone should have a Living Will. Having a document that lets your family know your exact wishes will be a huge comfort to them and will prevent them from having to make the decision for you. Each state handles living wills differently. You’ll want to make sure your living will is prepared according to your state’s specific guidelines.