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 he or she is unable to communicate his or her wishes.

In the case of an unconscious person who suffers from a terminal illness or a life-threatening injury, doctors and hospitals consult his or her 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.


Living wills and advance directives come into play only when one faces a life-threatening condition and is unable to communicate his or her 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 he or she wishes to donate his or her organs and tissues after death. Even if he or she refuses life-sustaining care, he or she can express the desire to receive pain medication throughout his or her final hours.

In most states, one can extend his or her living will to cover situations where he or she has no brain activity or where doctors expect him or her to remain unconscious for the rest of his or her 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 is a Health-Care Proxy Different than a Living Will?

In addition to the living will, one can select a health-care proxy who is allowed to make decisions for him or her if he or she is incapable of making those choices. Some states call this individual a health-care 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 health-care proxy reduces confusion over one's final wishes. One should discuss his or her wishes with his or her proxy before naming this person and be sure the proxy is willing to follow through with his or her desires.

  1. Continuing Care Retirement Community

    A continuing care retirement community is a facility for seniors ...
  2. Proxy

    A proxy is an agent legally authorized to act on behalf of another ...
  3. Healthcare Power Of Attorney - ...

    Healthcare power of attorney allows an individual to empower ...
  4. Proxy Statement

    A proxy statement is a document with data shareholders need so ...
  5. Assisted Living

    Assisted living is a type of housing facility for the elderly ...
  6. Duplicate Proxy

    A duplicate proxy is a second voting proxy that allows a shareholder ...
Related Articles
  1. Financial Advisor

    5 Reasons to Update Your Living Will

    A living will protects you when you can't fully take care of yourself, but the details can be forgotten. Minds change, medicine advances, life happens, and it may be time for updates.
  2. Retirement

    Healthcare Documents You Need In Place Right Now

    If you become incapacitated, here are some documents that should be in place to say who is authorized to speak on your behalf.
  3. Managing Wealth

    Why Keep Medical & Financial Powers of Attorney Separate?

    Representing your interests in financial matters is a very different job from communicating and advocating for your wishes with doctors.
  4. Retirement

    A Guide to Estate Planning When You're Young

    No matter what age you are, estate planning and the documents that go with it are important.
  5. Personal Finance

    7 Things Widows Wished They Knew About Finances

    Women who left finances up to their spouses wish they knew the following before they became widows.
  6. Retirement

    4 Estate Planning Documents Everyone Needs

    There are four key estate planning documents that everyone should have in place.
  7. Insurance

    How to Plan Financially for a Chronic Illness

    Here's why and how to plan ahead financially for a progressive or long-term illness.
  8. Managing Wealth

    Medical Power of Attorney: Which Child to Choose?

    Don’t compromise for the sake of family harmony when you pick an adult child to fill this role. But be sure you fully explain your decision to all.
  9. Investing

    The REIT Play In Healthcare

    At the end of the day, our population is aging quite rapidly and will require plenty of medical care. That could mean some serious big bucks for the owners and operators of hospitals, doctor’s ...
Trading Center