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Living Will Definition - What You Need to Know About Living Wills

What is a living will? Is it the same as a will? Who should have one? Trust & Will explains what you need to know about living wills.

Patrick Hicks

Patrick Hicks, @PatrickHicks

Head of Legal, Trust & Will

Most of us know that a Will is a legal document we can use to communicate our end-of-life wishes, and describe how we want our property divided up and gifted to those we love. A Will is a foundational estate planning document that everyone should have. 

A fewer number of us are aware that the Will has an estate planning cousin: the Living Will. You might imagine that a Living Will serves a similar function as a traditional Will. Although this may be true in some minute aspects, it’s actually quite different. A Living Will has nothing to do with our deaths or what happens after we pass away. Keep reading to find out the purpose a Living Will serves, and why everyone should have one of these as well.

What is a Living Will? 

A Living Will is a type of estate planning document that you would use to express your wishes regarding your future medical care. You may be wondering, “why would I need to write down my wishes for a time when I’m still alive? Can’t I just tell my medical care team what I want directly?” A Living Will goes into effect specifically in the cases in which this isn’t possible. 

We typically refer to this as ‘incapacitation,’ or when a person is unable to make medical decisions or communicate medical wishes  themselves. Any number of illnesses, accidents and conditions can cause incapacitation. Comas, strokes, and dementia are all examples of conditions that can render a person cognitively or physically disabled. Incapacitation can also be temporary, such as a severe illness that later leads to a full recovery.

Now that you have a better understand of what it means to become incapacitated, let’s circle back to the living will definition. In your living will, you would address any number of medical decisions to be made on your behalf, including scenarios that are likely or even unlikely. We will provide some examples of what can be included in a Living Will shortly. Living Wills are legal documents, which means that you can have peace of mind knowing that your healthcare providers are required to carry out your wishes by law.

Note that a Living Will belongs to a broader category of legal documents called ‘advance directives’ that can be used collectively to address your future medical care. Some use the two terms interchangeably, but when examining the living will meaning, it becomes clear that the two are in fact not the same. We explore the key differences between these two terms here. 

What is the Purpose of a Living Will?

The purpose of a Living Will is informing others of your medical desires. If you’re incapacitated, it means that your doctors and loved ones can’t ask you whether or not you’d like to receive this medical treatment or try that new medication. In the absence of a Living Will, they’re forced to make their best guesses. 

With a Living Will, however, caregivers are given a framework so that they can make decisions on your treatment. Not only does a Living Will ensure that your wishes are honored, it can give your loved ones and caregivers clarity and peace of mind. They’ll have better confidence knowing that they are executing medical decisions that align with what you would have wanted. As you might imagine, making these decisions when they could be the difference between life or death can cause anyone a great amount of stress. 

What is the Difference Between a Will and a Living Will?

Wills and Living Wills could not be more different. A Will has everything to do with what should happen when you pass away. More specifically, it provides guidance on how your assets should be distributed. Meanwhile, a Living Will is concerned with what should happen while you’re still alive. It discusses your medical preferences in the case you become temporarily or permanently incapacitated. 

However, they do share some similarities. First, they are both important legal documents that should be included in your estate plan. Second, they are both modalities used to express your wishes for when you can’t do so yourself. 

What is Included in a Living Will?

A Living Will includes your instructions on what should happen with regards to medical care and procedures while you are incapacitated. For example, you can make a list of procedures that you allow, or if it’s easier, make a list of the procedures that you refuse. The same is true for medications. Living Wills also provide a space for you to address any religious or philosophical beliefs, should you have any. This kind of information can help provide further guidance on what your end-of-life care should like, and what should happen to your body and organs if you were to pass away.

Here are some ideas on what is typically included in a Living Will:

  • Preferences regarding life-sustaining treatments 

  • Preferences regarding life support

  • A list of medications that you accept or refuse

  • A list of procedures that you accept or refuse

  • Any allergies or conditions that providers should be aware about

  • Scenarios in which you would opt for a natural death

  • Opting in or out of organ donation

  • End-of-life wishes

  • Available resources to cover medical and end-of-life expenses

  • Any ethical, religious or philosophical beliefs that could inform medical decisions

Who Should Have a Living Will?

Absolutely anyone should have a Living Will, regardless of age, income, race, gender, religion, or creed. 

It’s widely accepted that saving up money for an emergency is a smart idea, even though that emergency might never happen. In a similar sense, it’s always a good idea to take the necessary measures and precautions to protect yourself and family for scenarios that could happen. 

Unfortunately, each and every one of us is exposed to the risk of becoming incapacitated, at any time. COVID-19 showed us how a pandemic can take a whole world by surprise, rendering countless individuals so severely ill that they wished that they had a Living Will. 

While we don’t want to live in constant fear, we all know that it takes just one accident or illness to drastically change our circumstances. It doesn’t matter how old we are or how much money we have. 

That’s why it can feel so empowering to focus on what we can control and take action. And in this instance, while we cannot control whether or not we might become incapacitated, we can control our decision to implement a Living Will. That way, if something unexpected were to happen, we’d have peace of mind knowing that we’d receive medical care exactly in the way we wish.

Can You Make a Living Will Without a Lawyer?

Yes, you can make a Living Will without working with a lawyer. As long as you’ve written your Living Will yourself, signed it, gathered witness signatures, and have it notarized, it’s just as legally valid as one you would have created with a lawyer.

Next you’ll find some tips on how to write a Living Will.

How to Write a Living Will

So far, this article may have you fired up about Living Wills. They’re all about taking matters in your hands and making sure your care providers are crystal clear on your desires, should you require medical attention but are incapacitated. 

You decide to sit down and write your own Living Will, but then you realize you don’t actually know how to write one. Don’t worry, we’ve got your back! Below we provide the 5 simple steps to creating your Living Will:

1. Think about and make decisions about your preferred treatment options.

This is often the hardest part about creating your Living Will. Seldom do we think about specific medical treatments that may become necessary in our lifetime. Ask yourself how you feel about aspects such as life-sustaining treatments, life support, and your end-of-life wishes. In your eyes, what is a good quality of life? Do you want to be on life support, and how long? Even if the doctor advises that you are in a vegetative state? These are the tough questions you’ll need to answer, and then communicate in your document.

2. Obtain a Living Will form provided in your state.

Download a free Living Will form or template, specific to the state in which you live, to serve as your guide. You might end up opting to fill out the form or template and use it as your Living Will. Otherwise, you can use it as a guide that informs you on what to include in your document.

3. Write your Will and get the required signatures.

Remember that your Living Will won’t be legally valid without the required signatures. Sign your Will, and also be sure to obtain signatures from your witnesses. Here, it is best to find out what your State requires. Most states require signatures from two witnesses. Some states also require that you have your document notarized.

4. Find a safe place to store your Living Will.

Once your Living Will is signed into effect, find a safe place to keep it. It’s best to store it along with your other estate planning documents to stay organized. A home safe or a locked desk drawer are common places of safekeeping. You might also save a digital copy and provide a copy to your doctor. It’s recommended that you revisit and revise your Living Will regularly, so don’t forget to get rid of old versions and provide the updated versions.

5. Consider setting up a Medical Power of Attorney (POA).

A Living Will and a Medical Power of Attorney both belong to an advance directive. The purpose of a Medical POA is to legally enable a trusted individual, such as a family member, to make medical decisions for you when you cannot. It also allows them to serve as a point of contact for your team of healthcare providers. 

Create Your Living Will with Trust & Will

The purpose of a Living Will is to communicate your wishes pertaining to medical care, should you ever become incapacitated. Some people are lucky and never end up needing their Living Will, but incapacitation can happen to any of us, especially toward the end of our lives. 

If you’re questioning whether or not you need a Living Will, ask yourself this: “If I become incapacitated tomorrow, would my care providers know what treatments and procedures I would accept? Would my loved ones feel comfortable making my end-of-life decisions and feel confident that they knew what I wanted?”

Most often, the answer ends up being “no.” Talking about terminal illnesses and other life-threatening scenarios is sad and hard to talk about. Our society has conditioned us to not discuss these matters openly, and instead, we often sweep them under the rug. When we do happen to talk about it, we can often find ourselves surprised at some of the desires of our loved ones. 

That’s why a Living Will is the only surefire way we know that we can make the right decisions for a loved one if they become incapacitated, and vice-versa. Everyone in the family should create a Living Will without delay. It is an act of love that can significantly reduce stress, grief, and trauma during a challenging time.

Earlier, we talked about how it’s possible to write a Living Will without a lawyer. People often opt to write their Living Wills themselves because they find estate planning attorneys to be too expensive. However, once they start writing their Living Wills, they might encounter writer’s block. Not only can it be tricky to navigate, such as knowing what to include, you might not feel confident that your Living Will covers all of your needs.

That being said, we at Trust & Will offer the perfect solution. We are an estate planning platform that offers tools to help you outline exactly what you want to have happen in the case you become unable to communicate your wishes. Our services are cost-effective, and are backed by the expertise of estate planning attorneys. You could even finish creating your Living Will as soon as today!

Is there a question here we didn’t answer? Reach out to us today or Chat with a live member support representative!