4 minute read

What's the Difference Between a Living Will vs Will?

Although they may sound similar, a living will and a will are quite different. We break down the differences, and compare other estate documentation.

Patrick Hicks

Patrick Hicks, @PatrickHicks

Head of Legal, Trust & Will

There’s a lot of talk these days about the importance of proper Estate Planning. With good reason, too...properly preparing your estate now can protect your loved ones and your legacy in the future. 

The first step in creating an effective Estate Plan means having a basic understanding of the differences between all the tools and vehicles you can use. Once you know what each piece can do for you, it’s not difficult to build a thorough, iron-clad plan to help you achieve your goals. A key part of any Estate Plan is your Living Will, which may seem confusing until you learn a bit more.

So, what is a Living Will? How does it differ from a traditional Will? Do you need one? More importantly, do you need anything else? Read on, as we cover everything you need to know about a Living Will vs Wills vs other Estate Planning tools you have at your disposal. 

What is a Living Will? 

A Living Will is simply a document you can create that’ll serve to advise (in advance) your wishes about the type of end-of-life treatment and care plans you do - or don’t! - want. The main purpose of a Living Will is to ensure your voice is heard when it comes to medical intervention and care, even if you’re in a position where you can’t speak for yourself. 

Living Will vs. Will - What’s the Difference? 

While they may sound the same, Living Wills vs. Wills in the traditional sense serve very different purposes. 

A Will is written to guide your loved ones (and the courts) about how your estate should be distributed after you pass away. 

A Living Will makes sure medical decisions that are made on your behalf respect your wishes. These decisions could be in regards to everything from medication, to what extraordinary measures should be taken to save your life, to if you’d ever want feeding tubes used, to your feelings on life support. Essentially, a Living Will dictates the medical decisions you would want, before they ever need to be made.

Wondering when you could ever possibly need a Living Will? Just think about this scenario.  Living Wills come into play, let’s say, if you’re ever in a serious car accident. In the following hours, days, weeks (maybe longer) after an accident, many decisions will need to be made on your behalf. 

  • How intensive do you want medical intervention to be? 

  • Do you want CPR? 

  • What kind of life would you want to live if you survive? 

Having an up-to-date, explicit Living Will means your loved ones know exactly what you would (and would not) want to have happen if this terrible what-if were ever to become a reality.

In addition to this incredibly important document that protects your own interest, it also protects your loved ones from having to make potentially excruciatingly difficult decisions if they’re not sure about what you would want.

Other Common Living Will Comparisons

Living Wills are extremely important, but they are not the end-all-be-all of your Estate Plan. Learn about the different components that all work together to ensure your loved ones understand exactly what you want. 

Advanced Directive vs Living Will 

With all the different terminologies and labels, it can admittedly be a bit confusing to try and wade through what you do and don’t need in terms of your Estate Plans. Think of it this way: 

An Advanced Directive is basically the direction you can leave while you’re of sound body and mind about your healthcare wishes. 

A Living Will is a type of Advanced Directive that you can prepare to become effective once you’re determined by doctors to be terminally ill.

They’re so closely-related, a Living Will vs Advance Directive can generally be used to accomplish a lot of the same things. As part of a complete Advance Directive (that could include other documents and direction), a Living Will lets your family and medical professionals understand what type of medical treatment you want, or what you would refuse. 

Living Will vs Living Trust 

Despite having similar names, Living Wills and Living Trusts are quite different. A Living Will, as we’ve explained, exists to make sure your wishes regarding end-of-life care are legally documented. 

There are many types of Trusts, but a Living Trust lets you manage your estate while you’re alive. One of the biggest benefits to a Living Trust is it sets up for an easy transition of your assets to your beneficiaries once you’re gone.  

Revocable Living Trust vs Will 

A Revocable Living Trust is basically the same thing as a Living Trust (which it’s also commonly called). It holds your assets and explains how they should be distributed and handled after you pass away. The “Revocable” part of it just means it can be easily changed or altered at any time (by contrast, an “Irrevocable” Trust is very difficult to make changes to). 

Your Will is very basic, and while it can accomplish some of the same goals, Wills cannot offer asset protection, minimize estate taxes or help you avoid probate like Trusts can. 

Healthcare Proxy vs Living Will 

A Healthcare Proxy (HCP) is the legal document that allows you to appoint a person who could make any needed medical decisions for you should you become incapacitated. This is different from a Living Will, since a Living Will is where you can share what medical treatments and interventions you would (or sometimes would not) want.

Healthcare Proxies largely differ from Living Wills in that they do not require you to state any medical decisions in advance. Rather, the person you appoint to be your Healthcare Proxy will have the authority to make decisions on your behalf. 

It’s essential that you have complete trust in your Healthcare Proxy, and that you fully believe he or she will be able to honor your wishes when and if the time comes.

Living Will vs Durable Power of Attorney 

A Living Will is a document you complete that explains your end-of-life healthcare decisions in advance. Living Wills differ from Durable Power of Attorneys (POAs) in that a POA is the person you name who can make medical decisions on your behalf. 

The Durable part here is key, because it means that even if you’re to unexpectedly become incapacitated, your POA will stay in effect. Without that durable part, any POA you’ve previously designated would expire as soon as you are unable to make decisions.

Living Will vs DNR

Living Wills and DNRs are somewhat similar, which is probably why they’re so often confused. But in truth, there are some pretty significant differences between the two documents. 

First off, a Living Will must be signed and witnessed buy two separate people other than yourself. A DNR, however, only needs the patient’s and doctor’s signatures to be valid. 

A DNR (which means “Do Not Resuscitate”) documents that you wouldn’t want to be resuscitated (revived). For example, if your heart stops and you have a DNR signed, medical professionals will not use defibrillators on you.

Understanding the different types of Estate Plans, and all the terminology around them - starting with a Living Will vs. a Will - can help you create a comprehensive plan that protects you and your future.