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What’s a Living Will and How Can It Help?

Published: August 2018

A living will is a legal document that helps provide clarity about your health care wishes should you suddenly become terminally ill or permanently unconscious, according to the National Institutes of Health’s MedlinePlus website (NIH).

A living will is a form of what is often referred to as an advance directive. It helps your physicians, family and friends understand your health care wishes if you’re unable to speak for yourself, says the NIH. The items commonly covered by a living will may touch on whether you wish to accept or reject medical care. This can range from whether you approve the use of breathing machines to if you would like to become an organ or tissue donor.

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Though thinking about and preparing for end-of-life care decisions may be challenging, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) suggests it may be best to create a living will while you’re still healthy, if possible. Accidents or unexpected illness may strike suddenly, leaving previously healthy people unable to communicate their wishes. Involving your family, friends and physicians in your decisions is important, as it helps make them aware of your wishes and the existence of your living will should it eventually be needed.

A living will generally covers a variety of health care-related wishes, but according to, it typically doesn’t enable you to directly appoint another person to help make health care decisions for you if you become unable to do so. That is usually covered under a separate advance directive called a durable power of attorney.

Preparing a Living Will

Laws regarding living wills and other advance directives vary by state, but the National Palliative Care and Hospice Organization (NPCHO) allows you to download state-specific living will forms and instructions. These forms can only be completed by individuals who are 18 years or older and, in most cases, also require a minimum of two witnesses, says the NPCHO. 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 yourself with either a form provided by your doctor or by using legal software or online tools, says

Once you’ve completed a living will, the NCI suggests you store it in a safe location where it may be readily accessed by a trusted family member or friend. You should also provide an additional copy to your doctor or health care team, if possible. Finally, consider keeping a card in your wallet that describes the existence and location of your living will or other advance directives.

When it comes to the future of your health, a living will may help ensure your wishes are known and followed should you no longer be able to speak for yourself.

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