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The reason you prepare a last will and testament is to explain your wishes so they’ll be carried out once you’ve passed away. It’s a critical part of your final life plans and will spare your loved ones the heartache of sorting out your estate while they’re still grieving.
But you also want to prevent those you care about from having to make hard life-or-death decisions for you. A living will can help with that. We’ll walk you through what a living will is and what it’s not, and help you figure out if you need one.
What Is a Living Will?
A living will is a legal document that tells others what your personal choices are about end-of-life medical treatment. It lays out the procedures or medications you want—or don’t want—used to prolong your life if you can’t talk with the doctors yourself. This could be because you’re under anesthesia for a scheduled surgery and had a complication or are unconscious from a car accident or other event.
Living Will vs. Will
Do you already have your will (aka your last will and testament)? That’s great! But your last will is different from a living will. Your last will explains exactly how you want your property and other assets to be handled after your death and includes family responsibilities, like naming legal guardians for your children.
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Think of it like this: Your last will tells people what you want to happen after you die. A living will tells them what you want to happen while you’re still living.
Living Will vs. Advance Directives
While a living will is just one document, advance directives can be made up of several documents. Some of the documents that could be included are: the living will itself, a DNR order (Do Not Resuscitate), directions about organ and tissue donation, specific instructions about a diagnosed illness, and medical power of attorney (another important document we’ll go over in the next section).
Careful, though! What a living will is called isn’t always consistent from state to state, and the term is sometimes used interchangeably as an advance directive. So you’ll want to see what your state calls it.
Whether the local term is one we already mentioned or a “directive to physicians,” “advance health care directive,” or even a “declaration regarding life-prolonging procedures,” they all serve a similar function—to let doctors know your wishes regarding end-of-life medical procedures if you can’t speak for yourself.
Living Will vs. Medical Power of Attorney
This one is a little different from a living will, because your living will wouldn’t appoint a medical representative—that’s what your medical power of attorney is for. Also known as a “health care proxy,” this person will act as an agent and make medical decisions for you if you can’t talk to the doctors for some reason.
What if your agent and your living will disagree? The doctors are supposed to favor what you’ve written in your living will over what the agent says. But sometimes there will be circumstances you hadn’t considered in your living will, so the agent is there to decide what’s in your best interest.
Having both a living will and a medical power of attorney can be really helpful if something like a new medical procedure or medicine was recently developed. Your medical power of attorney can make the best call for you while keeping in mind what you wanted in your living will.
What Do I Include in My Living Will?
There are several questions you want to answer in your living will. These questions might be tough to think about, but those who love you will be glad you did:
- What would you want to happen if you can no longer breathe on your own?
- If you can no longer feed yourself, how do you feel about feeding tubes?
- What types of pain management drugs or procedures would you be comfortable with?
- Do you want a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) or DNI (Do Not Intubate)?
- How do you feel about donating your body or organs after your death?
If you have a special medical condition, you’ll also want to include your choices for other procedures.
When Does a Living Will Go Into Effect?
A living will only works while these two things are true: You must be unable to communicate but still alive. For instance, if you were confused or in a coma because of a head injury, your doctors would want to look at your living will for direction. But the moment you’re able to communicate on your own, your living will becomes unneeded and has no authority.
Each state handles living wills in its own way. You’ll want to make sure your living will is prepared according to your state’s specific guidelines.
Do You Need a Living Will?
The short answer is—yes. Having a document that lets your family know your exact wishes will be a huge comfort to them.
The good news is, you can set up your living will, including your health power of attorney, using our online service! This will give you (and your family) the peace of mind knowing everything is taken care of. Oh, and did we mention it’s all online? No need for an attorney visit or fees!
Whatever you decide, please don’t put it off. It’s like the saying goes: “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago—the next best time is today!” So, the next best time to get your living will done is today!