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What Is a Living Will and Do You Need One?

If you’re thinking about wills, you’ll know that a last will and testament offers peace of mind because your wishes will be carried out after you pass on. But before you pass away, a living will can outline what you want to happen if the time comes when you’re still alive but can’t communicate due to a serious medical situation.

Let’s look closer at a living will—whether it’s right for you and how it’s different from a regular will, a medical power of attorney and an advance directive.

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—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 an accident or other event.

A living will is different than a medical power of attorney (which is when you choose someone you trust to make medical decisions on your behalf.) More on the differences soon.

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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But a living will is there to step in when you’re still alive but in an unconscious or terminal state, unable to voice your medical care wishes.

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 (Do Not Resuscitate) order, directions about organ and tissue donation, specific instructions about a diagnosed illness, and medical power of attorney.

But just to make things confusing, a living will isn’t always called the same thing from state to state, and the term is sometimes used interchangeably with advance directive. So, you’ll want to make sure you know what your state calls it.

Whether your state’s 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 have the same type of job—to let doctors know your wishes about end-of-life medical procedures if you can’t speak for yourself.

Living Will vs. Medical Power of Attorney

A medical power of attorney is different from a living will, because your living will wouldn’t appoint a medical representative for you—that’s what your medical POA is for.

A medical power of attorney is also known as a “health care proxy”— and this person acts as an agent to make medical decisions for you if you can’t talk to the doctors yourself. So instead of a piece of paper, you have a person you trust to speak on your behalf—acting in your best interests—while honoring your original wishes. So, you would need to have a conversation with them to make sure they know how you feel about important medical decisions.

What if you have a living will and a health care agent, and there’s a conflict? Let’s pretend a new medical treatment came up recently. Your health care agent learned about the procedure from your doctor and knows it’s something you would want to try based on your previous talks. But your living will didn’t specify this treatment as something you would be open to (because it’s a new thing you couldn’t have predicted would be developed when writing your living will).

In this situation, your health care agent would not be able to get the doctors to try the new treatment. Why? Because the living will overrides the health care agent (and doctors look to the living will first—as an official statement of your wishes).

When it matters most, a medical power of attorney is a lot more flexible than a living will. That’s why sticking to just having a medical power of attorney might make more sense for you. This person you trust will have a lot more power to do what’s best for you during crucial moments.

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What Do I Include in My Living Will?

Once you decide to create a living will, what should go in it? These questions might be tough to think about, but your loved ones 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 in the living will document too.

By thinking about these scenarios and setting out your wishes beforehand, you’re saving your family from having to make agonizing decisions about your medical treatment.

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 be 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?

To keep things simple, having a medical power of attorney instead of a living will might make more sense for you. A medical power of attorney can decide what’s in your best interests based on what you would have wanted and still be flexible (unlike a piece of outdated paper). That way, you have the peace of mind knowing—in what could be an unpredictable situation—there is someone you trust making those medical calls on your behalf.

You can set up your medical power of attorney while you’re creating your last will and testament in just a few minutes—leaving you to get back to enjoying your best life with the people you love.  

Ramsey Solutions

About the author

Ramsey Solutions

Ramsey Solutions has been committed to helping people regain control of their money, build wealth, grow their leadership skills, and enhance their lives through personal development since 1992. Millions of people have used our financial advice through 22 books (including 12 national bestsellers) published by Ramsey Press, as well as two syndicated radio shows and 10 podcasts, which have over 17 million weekly listeners.

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Take the worry out of making your will. Protect your family with a simple, legal online will—all from the comfort of home.
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