What is a living will, and why do you need one?

Don’t make your loved ones guess your wishes.
Written by
MP Dunleavey
MP Dunleavey is an award-winning personal finance journalist and author. For several years she was the Cost of Living columnist for The New York Times, covering real-life financial, behavioral finance, and investing issues. She was also the founding editor-in-chief of DailyWorth.com, the first financial e-newsletter for women.
Fact-checked by
Doug Ashburn
Doug is a Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst who spent more than 20 years as a derivatives market maker and asset manager before “reincarnating” as a financial media professional a decade ago.
Doctor in consultation with aging patients
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Plotting the medical decision road map.
© fizkes/stock.adobe.com

In the realm of health care planning, few documents hold as much weight and significance as a living will. This legal document is a type of advance directive that allows you to specify your preferences for medical treatment in the event that you become incapacitated and unable to communicate your wishes.

Unlike a traditional will, which addresses the distribution of your assets after you die, a living will focuses specifically on health care decisions while you are alive.

Key Points

  • Unlike a will, which deals with assets after you die, a living will specifies the medical care you want (and don’t want) if you’re incapacitated.
  • It typically covers treatments such as resuscitation, mechanical ventilation, and tube feeding, as well as organ donation.
  • A living will may not cover every scenario—only those you can anticipate now—so it’s wise to update this document regularly.

As we age, the loss of control is among our greatest fears. With a living will, you can address this fear head-on as it relates to your medical choices.

What does a living will cover?

Essentially, a living will serves as a road map for medical professionals and family members, guiding them on how to proceed with medical treatment if you’re unable to express your wishes due to illness or injury. It details your preferences regarding life-sustaining treatments, such as:

  • Resuscitation
  • Mechanical ventilation
  • Tube feeding
  • Organ donation
  • Pain medication

Without a living will in place, your doctors and even your family would have to make their best assessment about the kind of treatment you’ll receive.

Although living wills are legal in all states, the execution and implications of a living will can vary depending on the rules and regulations of different jurisdictions. For example, there may be specific requirements around witnesses, proper signatures, and having your living will notarized.

Who needs a living will?

The need for a living will extends to all adults, regardless of age, health status, or wealth. Although it’s common to associate advance directives with those who are elderly or seriously ill, the reality is that accidents and emergencies can occur at any stage of life. By proactively establishing a living will, you can retain control over your medical care in a crisis.

Individuals with specific medical conditions or religious beliefs may have strong preferences regarding certain types of treatment or end-of-life care. A living will enables you to articulate your desires and ensure they’re respected, even if you’re unable to communicate them later on.

In addition, a living will can alleviate the burden of decision-making for your loved ones—especially during a stressful time or a crisis, when their own judgment might be strained or their memory faulty.

Living will vs. health care power of attorney

It’s essential to distinguish between a living will and a healthcare power of attorney (POA). They serve complementary yet distinct purposes.

Four power of attorney types: Durable, springing, general, and limited
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Knowledge is power: Each POA type serves a specific purpose.
Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

A living will outlines specific instructions for medical treatment and end-of-life care. A health care POA appoints a trusted individual, known as a health care proxy or agent, to make health care decisions on your behalf if you’re unable to do so.

If you don’t have close family members (or family you’re close to), for example, or if there’s a specific person you want to designate to make health care decisions on your behalf, it’s probably wise to establish a health care power of attorney along with your living will. Both documents work together to ensure that your health care preferences are honored, even in challenging circumstances.

How do you set up a living will?

Setting up a living will involves several important steps to ensure that the document accurately reflects your wishes and that it’s legally binding.

  • Clarify your wishes: Take time to reflect on your values, beliefs, and preferences regarding medical treatment and end-of-life care, and discuss these with someone you trust. Consider various scenarios and the interventions you would or wouldn’t want in each situation.
  • Consult with your doctor(s): Discuss your medical preferences with your primary care physician or other health care providers, as they can offer guidance based on your history and prognosis.
  • Follow the rules: Become familiar with the laws and requirements for living wills in your state, as the rules regarding format, content, and execution of advance directives may vary.
  • Draft your document: You can create a living will using a template provided by your state or hire an attorney specializing in health care law—or both.
  • Distribute copies: Provide copies of your living will to your health care proxy, family members, primary care physician, and anyone else involved in your care.
  • Review and update regularly: Review your living will periodically to ensure it still accurately reflects your wishes. Life circumstances, as well as your health and medical preferences, can change over time, so it’s essential to keep your advance directives up to date.

Estate Planning Checklist (PDF)

Download the Britannica Money estate planning checklist.

Pros and cons of setting up a living will

Setting up a living will offers several benefits, including:

  • A sense of control over your medical treatment.
  • Relief for your loved ones, who won’t have to take on complicated medical choices.
  • Peace of mind knowing that your preferences will be respected if you’re incapacitated.

However, there are also some potential drawbacks to consider:

  • No document is 100% foolproof. A living will is not a crystal ball. A situation could arise that isn’t covered by the terms in the document, leaving some aspects of your care open to interpretation.
  • Your situation may change. Despite your best intentions, your health or your priorities could change before you have a chance to update your living will.
  • Laws and regulations change, too. Navigating the legal requirements and regulations surrounding advance directives can be complex, requiring careful attention to detail.

The bottom line

A living will is a crucial component of comprehensive life planning, allowing you to maintain some control over your medical treatment, even in challenging circumstances. By legally documenting your health care and end-of-life preferences, you can ensure that your wishes are respected.

At the same time, it’s wise to recognize that life is unpredictable, and a scenario could arise that requires the people you trust to interpret your wishes. But that’s another reason to establish a living will and leave less to chance.