What is a Living Will? Why do you need one?

November 6, 2020

The last will and testament is one of the most important documents you’ll ever create. Designed to offer peace of mind for you and your loved ones, a will ensures your wishes will be understood and honored after you pass. But what about before you die? If you want to protect your wishes regarding your finances, and other medical and legal decisions while you're hospitalized, unconscious, or otherwise unable to speak for yourself, you need to create a slightly different document. This is called a living will.

In this post, we’ll explain what a living will is, what a living will does, how to set up your own personalized living will, and why it’s so important to have a document that expressly states your wishes should anything happen to you or a loved. Let’s dive into everything you need to know about a living will.

What is a Living Will?

A living will (sometimes called a “medical will”) is a legal document that clarifies your choices for end-of-life medical treatment for family and loved ones. Typically a living will covers:

  • Procedures or medications you do or do not want
  • Preferences about treatments to prolong your life if you can’t talk to the doctors yourself
  • Preferences regarding intubation and resuscitation
  • Organ and tissue donation preferences
  • Disease or condition-specific preferences

If you have religious or spiritual preferences regarding end-of-life care, a living will is the best place to specify those wishes and clarify your stance on certain treatments.

How is a "Living" Will Different Than a Will?

Most of us are familiar with the last will and testament - the document that outlines your wishes for after you pass away. A living will is very different, though. Here are the key distinctions:


A last will and testament explains how you want to disperse your assets and property and who you want to be legal guardians for minor children after you die. Meanwhile, a living will comes into play if you are alive but in a terminal or unconscious state and unable to voice your medical care wishes.

In other words, a will specifies your wishes after death, while a living will specifies your wishes while you’re still alive.


Last wills direct the distribution of assets after a person’s death. However, a living will provides directions regarding medical care for someone who is still alive yet unable to communicate.

Living Will vs. Medical Power of Attorney

While a living will outlines medical preferences, it’s the medical power of attorney that actually appoints a medical representative, also known as a “healthcare proxy.” The biggest difference between the two documents is that one sets parameters for your medical care (living will) and the other appoints a legal power to speak on your behalf regarding medical care should you become incapacitated (medical power of attorney or a healthcare proxy).

The medical power of attorney document gives the healthcare proxy the right to speak on your behalf in medical matters. In other words, your healthcare proxy can act in your best interests while maintaining your original wishes and adapting to new information that could impact your care.

Living Will vs. Advance Directives

According to the National Institute on Aging, “an advanced directive is a general term that covers both written and oral instructions about your healthcare needs. A living will is just one type of advance directive.” So basically, all living wills are advanced directives, but not all advanced directives are living wills.

If you create an advance directive, you’ll likely want to develop a comprehensive package of documents that could include:

  • A living will
  • A document outlining wishes about organ and tissue donation
  • Specific instructions about a diagnosed or chronic illness (for people suffering from cancer, for example)
  • A medical power of attorney
  • A Do Not Resuscitate Order (DNR)

An important note: Living wills aren’t always called "living wills." Some states use the term interchangeably with “advance directive.” It really depends on where you live. If you’re looking to create end-of-life documents, make sure you know what your state calls the documents in question.

What Do I Include in My Living Will?

Creating a living will is an important legal decision. When you decide to make a living will, make sure you include these few things:

  1. Your desired course of action if you can no longer breathe on your own. Do you want to be intubated or otherwise put onto life support?
  2. What you want to happen if you can no longer feed yourself, and whether you’d like a feeding tube inserted.
  3. What, if any, pain management procedures and drugs you are comfortable with. If you have a specific end of life plan, or want to avoid certain medications, check that its compatible with state and local regulations.
  4. Whether you want to refuse intubation or resuscitation. These preferences require a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) or Do Not Intubate (DNI) order.
  5. Whether you want to donate your body, tissues, or organs after your death. Never make assumptions when it comes to organ donations. Always provide a clear plan for your remains so your loved ones know your wishes without a doubt
  6. Any additional considerations about a diagnosed medical condition or other procedures.

While it’s unpleasant to think about these scenarios, spelling them out in a living will is one of the best ways to support your family if you are ever seriously injured or ill. Remember, your living will isn't just about your wishes. It's about creating a clear plan of action for all scenarios to make every situation that much easier for your friends and family.

Documents you Need to Create a Living Will

According to a survey by The Conversation Project, 92% of Americans understand that they need a living will but only 27% actually have them. If you want to create a living will, you can hire an attorney, which can be costly, or do it on your own.

If you choose to DIY your living will make sure it meets your state’s requirements. All states require people making a living will to be at least 18 years old and of sound mind at the time of document creation. Some states may also require a witness or notarization of your living will for it to be legally viable.

How to Set a Living Will up

The best and most secure way to create a living will is to see an attorney. They can walk you through any laws or regulations that are specific to your state. However, you should know as much as possible about your living will before you visit the attorney.Make sure you understand your preferences on various medical treatments, including artificial respiration, blood transfusions, palliative care, and nourishment. Those decisions are solely up to you, and you should be prepared to make your legal decisions known before you meet with an attorney.

If you have questions regarding the different options, you can also discuss them with your physician to get the latest information. If you prefer, you can write our preferences down alongside your reasoning and rationale for each to help your family understand. And remember that a living will is not set in stone. You can update it whenever you like. Be sure to update it as your life circumstances change, such as after a divorce or death in the family or after a significant medical diagnosis.

Protect your family and your medical wishes by setting up a clear, comprehensive living will. Once you establish your living will, keep your legal documents organized, secure, and ready to share with family, friends, and caretakers with Pillar Life, the place for all of life’s most important documents. Learn how you can get started with Pillar Life for free today with a 14-day trial.

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