What is a living will?

A living will is a legal document that helps you prepare for severe illness, old age, or poor health. A living will specifies what you want to happen if you're still alive but unable to communicate due to your healthcare state.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Mar 17, 2022

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  • Living wills are legal documents that detail your medical care choices if you are unable to make decisions for yourself 
  • Advance directives guide decisions for doctors and caregivers 
  • You can create a living will without a lawyer by downloading a living will PDF form, according to which state you live in 

You may reach a point in your life when you are unable to communicate your medical care wishes due to an illness, old age, or poor health. A living will is a legal document that helps you to prepare for these eventualities by specifying your chosen medical care and determining who should make healthcare decisions on your behalf.

Before you die, a living will can dictate what you want to happen if you’re still alive but unable to communicate due to a catastrophic medical condition. Let’s take a deeper look at a living will to determine if it suits you and to discover how to create one without hiring a lawyer.

What is a living will?

Despite its name, a living will is nothing like the wills that people use to gift property to their loved ones when they die. A living will, also known to physicians as a directive or advance directive, is a legal document that allows people to express their preferences for end-of-life medical care in the event that they are unable to communicate their decisions. After death, a living will loses its potency.

What is included in a living will?

What should you include in your living will if you decide to create one? These are difficult questions to consider, but your loved ones will be grateful that you did:

  • What do you want to happen if you can’t breathe on your own anymore?
  • How do you feel about feeding tubes if you can no longer feed yourself?
  • What types of pain-relieving medications or procedures do you think you’d be comfortable with?
  • Do you want to be placed on a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) or DNI (Do Not Intubate) list?
  • What are your thoughts on donating your body or organs after you die?

If you have a medical condition, you should also express your preferences for other operations in your living will. 

By considering these possibilities and establishing your desires ahead of time, you can spare your family the agony of having to make difficult medical treatment decisions.

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How does a living will work?

A living will is only one of several sources of information that doctors may use in determining your medical treatment, due to the way advance directives work. It will depend on your own ability to communicate, as well as the possibility of other documents coming into play.

For advance directives, each state has its own form. Below, we’ll review what’s included in advance directives. Meanwhile, you should note that you’ll need to obtain a copy of your state’s unique advance directive form to create a living will and to assist you in preparing any other wills or paperwork that you and your family may require.

The following are the fundamental elements of how a living will works:

  • Validity. To be valid, it must meet all of your state’s specific notarization and witnessing requirements.
  • It can be revoked at any moment. This is convenient because you never know when fresh knowledge or life circumstances will change your plans, and you don’t want an outdated living will to misrepresent your current preferences.
  • You decide when a living will goes into effect. You can make it effective immediately or wait until doctors conclude that you are unable to convey your treatment preferences.
  • Consultation. Even if you choose to make it effective right away, doctors will spend as much time as possible getting to know you before consulting any documents.

When does a living will go into effect?

A living will can only function if certain conditions are met. First, you must be unable to communicate while still alive. For example, if you are confused or in a coma as a result of a brain injury, your doctors will consult your living will for guidance. However, when you’re able to communicate on your own, your living will is no longer necessary and has no authority.

In addition, living wills are handled differently in each state. You’ll want to ensure that your living will is written according to the laws in your state.  

Living Will vs. Advance Directive

A living will is one type of advance directive, and “advance directive” refers to any legal document that covers your future medical care. Living wills are advance directives, but not all advance directives are living wills.

Living WillAdvance Directive
A type of advance directive in which you state the medical treatments, procedures, and medications you do or don’t want to receiveAny legal document that expresses your desires regarding your future medical treatment
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Living Will

A living will is a type of advance directive in which you state your preferences for medical treatments, operations, and medications. If you become incapacitated and unable to communicate, your healthcare agent and physicians will refer to your living will’s healthcare instructions.

Living wills, like advance directives, are known by several titles in different states, including:

  • Directives from the doctors
  • Advance healthcare directives (AHCD)

Advance Directive

An advance directive is a legal document that expresses your preferences for future medical treatment. If you become incapacitated and unable to communicate, doctors will refer to your advance directives. This situation may occur if you:

  • Are in a coma
  • Suffer a stroke 
  • Suffer from dementia 
  • Are anesthetized
  • Are unwell to the point of being unable to communicate

You can personalize your advance directive to reflect any religious, spiritual, or philosophical convictions that may influence the type of healthcare you desire. It’s a good idea to state your beliefs in an advance directive, so that your healthcare providers are aware of them. 

According to the state in which you reside, advance directives are known by different names. Advance directives can be referred to as: 

  • Healthcare directives
  • Advance medical directives
  • Advance care directives
  • Designations of health care surrogate
  • Health care proxies

There are several kinds of advance directives, and they typically overlap in terms of what they cover and when they take effect, so you’re certain to find one that works for you.

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How to Make a Living Will Without a Lawyer

Many individuals believe that writing a will is a difficult procedure that necessitates the assistance of an attorney. However, if you have a modest estate plan in place, you can make your own living will without a lawyer’s assistance. 

To start with your living will, you can find an online living will PDF or living will form that you can fill out on your own. Some other factors to consider include: 

  • Your assets 
  • Details regarding who receives what
  • If applicable, naming a guardian for your minor children
  • Giving instructions for your pet 
  • Selecting an executor 
  • Naming a residuary beneficiary
  • Funeral preferences 

Keep the will in a secure location inside your home or with a trusted family member. Ascertain that a beneficiary or executor is aware of the will’s location and how to access it.

A Living Will: The Bottom Line

A living will, or an advance directive, is known as a legal document that allows people to specify their intentions for end-of-life medical care. If a person is unable to voice their preferences, it can provide essential direction to family members and healthcare providers. Family members and physicians are forced to speculate what an ill person would desire in terms of treatment without a document articulating those wishes. You can create your living will right at home without the assistance of an attorney.

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