What is a living will?

Last updated: January 1

A living will is a legal document that explains your preferred medical treatments if you’re permanently ill or dying, according to the National Institutes of Health’s MedlinePlus website (NIH). It’s especially useful if your medical condition prevents you from speaking for yourself.

It’s often called an advance directive, says the NIH, and the items typically touch on whether you wish to accept or reject medical care. This can include whether you approve the use of breathing machines or if you want to be an organ donor.

While thinking about end-of-life care decisions may be challenging, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) note that it’s best to create a living will while you’re still healthy, if possible. Accidents or unexpected illness may strike suddenly. Otherwise healthy people may be unable to communicate their wishes as a result. Involving your family, friends and physicians in your decisions is important because it makes them aware of your wishes.

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Preparing a living will

Laws regarding living wills and other advance directives vary by state, but you can download state-specific forms and instructions through the National Palliative Care and Hospice Organization (NPCHO). These forms can only be completed if you’re 18 years or older, says the NPCHO. In most cases they require a minimum of two witnesses. Although a lawyer isn’t needed to complete a living will, they may be helpful if you have any questions about the document and its legal implications. You may also create a living will with either a form provided by your doctor or by using legal software or online tools, says FamilyDoctor.org.

Once you’ve completed a living will, the NCI suggests you store it in a safe location that is easy to get to for a trusted family member or friend. You might also want to provide an additional copy to your doctor or health care team. Finally, consider keeping a card in your wallet that describes the existence and location of your living will or other advance directives.

It’s important to note that a living will doesn’t legally allow you to choose someone else to make medical decisions for you. That’s where a durable power of attorney comes in.

What’s durable power of attorney?

A durable power of attorney allows you to choose a loved one to make medical decisions on your behalf if you’re incapacitated, according National Caregivers Library (NCL). According to the National Institute on Aging, a durable power of attorney document can include the following types of decisions:

  • Which medical treatments should be used or not used (such as treatments for acute or chronic conditions, life support or resuscitation and end-of-life care)
  • Money-management decisions, including managing investments and retirement accounts
  • Managing and making gifts and donations
  • Acting on your behalf in a court of law, or official appearances
  • Paying your mortgage, car payment or other financial obligations
  • Managing Social Security, Medicare, pensions or any other benefits to which you’re entitled
  • Serving on your behalf for any other items you specify

It’s good to remember that health changes can affect us all — regardless of age. Even younger family members can benefit by planning for unexpected or critical health changes. It’s never too early to plan for your future needs.