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Most people think of wills as written instructions for use after death. In contrast, living wills provide your instructions for continuing or halting life-sustaining healthcare while you’re alive.

In this article, we’ll explain what living wills are, how to write them, and the circumstances that might warrant their need.

A living will is a written, legal document. It provides instructions for your medical care, or for the termination of medical support, in certain circumstances.

Living wills indicate your wishes for the use or discontinuation of life-sustaining treatments. They’re used if you become incapacitated and unable to communicate the way you normally do.

For example, you may be in a coma, on life support, or cannot speak, write, or sign rationally and coherently. Incapacitation is determined and certified by a medical professional, such as a doctor.

Living wills include instructions about the use of resuscitation if you stop breathing or your heart stops beating. They also include instructions about life-sustainment measures. These include getting hydration or nutrition through a feeding tube if your body or brain stops functioning naturally.

Your living will can include very specific information about treatments you’re currently receiving for a condition such as cancer. They can also include treatments you anticipate needing and those given for pain management.

Living wills are legal documents you can create with the help of an attorney. However, you don’t need to hire an attorney to make a valid, legally recognized living will. Many hospitals, nursing homes, and hospice facilities have living will forms you can fill out. Your state or local government website may also provide living will forms you can download and use.

Each state has its own legal requirements for valid living wills. If you decide to use a do-it-yourself living will form, make sure you download one that is intended for use in your state of residence.

At a minimum, include this information in your living will:

  • your legal name
  • your alias (the name you’re known by), if it differs from your legal name
  • the current date (day, month, and year)
  • a statement that you are of “sound mind and body” and competent enough to make a living will
  • healthcare instructions for events that occur with no reasonable expectation for recovery or quality of life (These can include instructions about CPR, do not resuscitate (DNR) orders, and do not intubate (DNI) orders.)
  • the name of your healthcare proxy, if you have one (the person who will communicate and instate your wishes)
  • the name of your alternate healthcare proxy, if you have one
  • the signed statements of two witnesses indicating you willingly and rationally signed your living will
  • your legal signature

The more detailed your living will instructions are, the more likely they are to be followed as per your wishes. The healthcare professional you see regularly may be able to guide you here. Consider setting up an appointment with your doctor to discuss these specifics. An attorney who regularly drafts living wills can also be a guiding resource for you.

Your decisions about medical and end-of-life care are very personal. They are yours alone to make. Even so, you may wish to discuss your options and choices with family members or close friends.

Your living will should be shared with your healthcare providers and healthcare proxy. Take a copy of it with you whenever you travel or go to a medical facility, such as a hospital.

Your living will can be changed by you at any time. If you make changes to your living will, it’s important to provide new copies to your healthcare proxy, medical team, and family.

An advance directive is not the same as a living will, but it does include your living will.

An advance directive is a legal document with two parts. It contains:

  • your living will
  • your healthcare power of attorney (more on that, below)

Like living wills, advance directives don’t include information about finances, property distribution, conservatorship of children, and other nonmedical matters.

Your attorney can help you draft an advance directive. You can also access advance directive forms online through your state’s official agencies, many hospitals, and most hospice facilities.

A healthcare power of attorney is a document that identifies the person you choose to make healthcare decisions on your behalf. This document is also referred to as a durable medical power of attorney. The person you name in the document is referred to as your healthcare proxy, healthcare agent, or healthcare surrogate.

Unlike a living will, a healthcare power of attorney document does not contain instructions for end-of-life care or the use of healthcare procedures. Rather, it grants legal permission to the person of your choice to make those decisions for you.

Healthcare power of attorney documents are used in conjunction with living wills, but they do not take the place of living wills. Some states combine both documents into an advance directive.

Having a healthcare proxy whom you trust in place provides added insurance that your end-of-life decisions will be communicated effectively and honored completely.

Traditional wills are also referred to as last wills and testaments. This document provides instructions about the dissemination of your wealth and property after death. If you have minor children, your will may also include information about who should take over their care.

If you die without a will, you’re classified as “intestate.” This means your state of legal residence will decide upon the dissemination of your assets, including bank accounts and property. Without a will, your family and intended heirs may not be provided for according to your wishes.

Traditional wills do not include information about medical decisions. They don’t take the place of living wills.

People with terminal illnesses and the elderly may strongly feel the need for a living will. But adults, regardless of their health or age, should consider making one.

Incapacitation, either permanent or temporary, can be caused by sudden illness or an unanticipated accident. It’s not enjoyable to think about. But planning for situations that will, hopefully, never take place is the best way to ensure that your choices for yourself are enforced.

As mentioned earlier, living wills can be altered to fit your needs at any time. If your health changes and you become ill, review your living will. Make sure it sufficiently addresses the situations that may now occur.

Share the most current copy of your living will with your healthcare proxy. Also share it with people who may be with you in an emergency, such as family members, friends, or a trusted neighbor. Make sure your doctor and other members of your medical team have copies. Your lawyer should also have one on hand.

If you need to go to a hospital or urgent care facility, you or someone you trust should share your living will with the ambulance’s emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and the emergency room staff.

Your living will can include information about your desire to be or not be an organ and tissue donor. Other than that, it has no power after death.

Your living will cannot be used to make decisions about funeral or burial arrangements.

Do minor children need living wills?

No. A child’s parent or legal guardian automatically has the role of healthcare proxy for any minor who is under their care. This changes when the child turns 18. At that time, a living will may be beneficial, particularly if your child lives away from home or you can’t be readily available in emergency situations.

Should I change my living will if I move to another state?

Maybe. State laws and procedures vary regarding living wills and other documents, such as advanced directives. If you move to another state, check with an attorney or other resource to see if your current living will needs to be altered. This may simply mean that you need to fill out a different, state-approved form.

If you’re a snowbird or live in multiple residences across several states, having separate living wills for each location may also be helpful.

A living will is a written legal document that communicates your wishes for medical care if you’re incapacitated. Living wills are usually used to communicate medical decisions about end-of-life care.

Adults of any age may benefit from having a living will in place.