Financial Advice

How Do Living Wills Work?

How Do Living Wills Work?

Discussing death and dying with family members is challenging, but it's essential when it comes to planning for the future. A living will, similar to a last will that dictates asset distribution after death, is a document outlining your preferences for medical treatment if you cannot make decisions yourself.

This document is deeply personal, detailing your specific wishes for medical care under various circumstances.

So, what exactly is a living will? How does it function, what does it encompass, and how can you create one? In the following sections, we'll address these questions about living wills, providing clarity and guidance to help you understand and prepare one.

What Is a Living Will?

Imagine you're seriously ill or injured, and someone needs to make an important medical decision regarding your treatment, but you're unable to communicate. How do doctors ensure they provide treatment consistent with your desires?

A living will answers medical care decisions when you cannot make them yourself. It is a critical component of advance care planning, which involves preparing for future healthcare decisions when you might be incapacitated.

In this sense, a living will is like a durable power of attorney for health care. This legal document dictates your medical decisions on your behalf if you're incapacitated.

Typically, a living will becomes relevant when an individual faces a medical situation without hope for a cure or recovery. It dictates whether to administer or withhold life-saving treatments or artificial life support. In such circumstances, doctors and family members can refer to the individual's living will to guide their healthcare decisions.

What Is Covered in a Living Will

A living will includes directives to withhold or withdraw artificial means of life support if a person cannot express their preferences. But what does this mean, and what does it include?

The person named in a living will is the "principal." A living will comes into play whenever the "principal" sustains an irreversible or incurable medical condition that can result in death within a short period (often six months or less).

Then, the living will addresses and covers preferences for the following:

  • Cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR)
  • Heart-lung machines
  • Artificial nutrition (feeding tube)
  • Artificial hydration (feeding tube or IV)
  • Dialysis

Other inclusions to consider:

  • Palliative care and pain management
  • Place of death (would you like to die at home?)

Ideally, you want your living will to be exhaustive so your proxy isn't making any direct medical decisions. In addition, your living will should list a proxy, someone who will act on your behalf to relay decisions outlined in your living will and ensure they are being adhered to.

Preparing a Living Will

  • Get a Living Will Template. If you already have an estate planning attorney, speak to them about drafting a living will that reflects your needs.

    When you don't have an estate planning attorney, you can download your state's living will template by visiting AARP's living will directory to download the template.

  • Include Advance Directives. Advance directives address wishes regarding specific medical treatment. For example, the directives may decide whether or not you want artificial nutrition, hydration, or resuscitation in cases of dementia, coma, or stroke.
  • Make It Official. To make it official (and legally binding), you need to follow these steps:
    • Add your full legal name and the date you drafted the will.
    • A statement that you are mentally capable of making this decision.
    • The name of your health care proxy.
    • The signatures of two witnesses.
    • Your signature.


It can be a tricky subject, and you may not want to think about it, but being prepared for the worst puts you in a better position in case the worst does happen. If you wish for life-saving support, you don't want to risk not getting it. On the other hand, if you don't want artificial life support in the case of a terminal illness, having a living will is the best way to ensure meeting your medical care desires.

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