What Is a Living Will?

A living will—also known as an advance directive—is a legal document that specifies the type of medical care that an individual does or does not want in the event they are unable to communicate their wishes.

In the case of an unconscious person who suffers from a terminal illness or a life-threatening injury, doctors and hospitals consult the living will to determine whether or not the patient wants life-sustaining treatment, such as assisted breathing or tube feeding. In the absence of a living will, decisions about medical care become the responsibility of the spouse, family members, or other third parties. These individuals may be unaware of the patient’s desires, or they may not wish to follow the patient’s unwritten, verbal directives.

Key Takeaways

  • A living will is a legal document detailing the type and level of medical care one wants to receive if they are unable to make decisions or communicate their wishes when care is needed.
  • A living will addresses many life-threatening treatments and procedures, such as resuscitation, ventilation, and dialysis.
  • A person can appoint a healthcare proxy to make decisions regarding care when they are unable to do so.
  • A living trust is a legal document that addresses how the assets of the incapacitated person should be managed.
  • People can enlist the services of an estate planner or an attorney to help draft or review a living will.

Understanding a Living Will

Living wills and advance directives come into play only when one faces a life-threatening condition and is unable to communicate their desires for treatment. Doctors don’t consult the wills for standard medical care that doesn’t involve life-threatening situations.

Every state provides for the drafting of a living will, although some states call the document a medical directive or a health-care proxy. Some states let you prepare a detailed, customized living will, while others require you to fill out a standardized form.

What Is Included in a Living Will?

A living will addresses many of the medical procedures common in life-threatening situations, such as resuscitation via electric shock, ventilation, and dialysis. One can choose to allow some of these procedures or none of them. One can also indicate whether they wish to donate organs and tissues after death. Even if the patient refuses life-sustaining care, they can express the desire to receive pain medication throughout their final hours.

People who reside or spend a lot of time in another state should ensure that their living will is valid in both places as rules vary per state.

In most states, one can extend the living will to cover situations where there is no brain activity or where doctors expect them to remain unconscious for the rest of their life, even if a terminal illness or life-threatening injury isn’t present. Because these situations can occur to any person at any age, it’s a good idea for all adults to have a living will.

How to Make a Living Will

Before making a living will, it's best to understand that it will not serve as a last will and testament, whereby property and personal effects are allocated to others upon death. A living will stipulates the type and levels of medical care one receives if incapacitated and for how long.

The living will details the goals and wishes of a person in the event they can no longer care or make decisions for themselves. When creating a will, consider how you want to integrate your personal or religious beliefs into the care received.

It might be helpful to segment the living will into categories of care. You could first identify the circumstances in which care should be extended to preserve life and what types of life-saving or preserving care, such as blood transfusions and dialysis, should be administered.

Include a category to address whether you want care if you are in a vegetative or unconscious state. Indicate where you want to receive medical care: nursing home, at home, or in some other facility. You can also request how nutrition will be provided, whether it be given intravenously, by mouth, or withheld.

Another category to consider is pain management. Indicate the types and levels of treatment to manage pain. You can further break down this category into life-sustaining pain management and pain management in lieu of life-sustaining care.

If you have family or friends who will be responsible for overseeing your care, discuss your plans with them. It might be helpful to include them in the decision-making process as they might have insight into areas otherwise overlooked when planning alone. Lastly, enlist the help of a professional, such as an estate planner or attorney. These experts can help you make decisions for the best possible outcomes.

Healthcare Proxy

In addition to the living will, one can select a health-care proxy who is allowed to make decisions if they are incapable of making those choices. Some states call this individual a healthcare power of attorney. Living wills cover many medical decisions, but a health-care proxy can consult with the doctor on other issues that may arise.

When facing the loss of a loved one, families often disagree over treatment, so having a healthcare proxy reduces confusion over one's final wishes. One should discuss wishes with the proxy before naming this person and be sure the proxy is willing to follow through with their desires.

Living Will vs. Living Trust

Although a living will and a living trust are commonly referred to in estate planning, they are different. A living will involves how the subject person will be cared for if in a compromised or incapacitated state. This medical directive terminates upon the death of that person.

A living trust deals with the property and assets of an incapacitated person. The trust essentially becomes the new owner of the assets. Under the living trust agreement, a trustee, or the person or persons responsible for managing the assets, is identified. Just as a living will deals with a living person, a living trust deals with the assets of a living person. They both are executed when the initiator lacks the capacity to make decisions for themselves.

Living Will FAQs

Do I Lose Control of My Living Will If I Appoint a Proxy?

You will not lose control of your living will while you have the ability or capacity to make decisions. If incapacitated, the proxy has the legal authority to act on your behalf, making decisions about your healthcare.

Review the living will with the proxy to make sure they understand your wishes and agree to enforce them when needed.

What Is the Difference Between a Living Will and a Last Will and Testament?

A living will addresses the type of medical treatment given to a person who is unable to make those decisions for themselves. The living will carries out the expressed wishes regarding medical care of a person should they become unable to manage their care.

The last will and testament are the expressed wishes of a person regarding how their assets will be allocated or disposed of upon their death.

What Is a Bank’s Living Will?

A bank's living will is a legal report filed annually by companies instructing how the business will be liquidated in the event of insolvency. Banks with at least $50 billion in assets are required to file a living will with regulators.