Living Will Definition: How to Make an Advance Directive for Medical Decisions

A living will is an advance directive that conveys your wishes about medical decisions when you can’t communicate.
Kay Bell
By Kay Bell 
Updated
Edited by Tina Orem
Person holding person's hand at the hospital

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Nerdy takeaways
  • A living will is a type of advance directive, which gives instructions for future medical care.

  • A living will helps medical providers know whether and when you want treatments that could prolong your life.

  • Living wills can help in case you suddenly become incapacitated, such as after an accident.

Nerdy takeaways
  • A living will is a type of advance directive, which gives instructions for future medical care.

  • A living will helps medical providers know whether and when you want treatments that could prolong your life.

  • Living wills can help in case you suddenly become incapacitated, such as after an accident.

A living will is a legal document describing medical treatments you want and do not want if you cannot communicate. Living wills help ensure medical providers follow your wishes if you’re incapacitated. Typically, you can revoke a living will if you regain the ability to make decisions. Typically, you can revoke a living will if you regain the ability to make decisions

.

Living wills aren’t just for older adults or those with terminal illnesses; they can help anyone over 18 ensure their preferences are upheld in emergencies.

How to write a living will

1. Access a living will template or form.

You can create a living will through any of the following methods:

LegalZoom - Last Will

Trust & Will - Will

Price (one-time)

$89 for Basic will plan, $99 for Comprehensive will plan, $249 for Estate Plan Bundle.

Price (one-time)

Will: one-time fee of $199 per individual or $299 for couples. Trust: one-time fee of $499 per individual or $599 for couples.

Price (annual)

None

Price (annual)

$19 annual membership fee.

Access to attorney support

Yes

Access to attorney support

Yes

2. Add directives.

Living wills contain specific directives that address your wishes for medical treatments in situations such as dementia, comas and strokes. For example, a living will commonly outlines a person’s wishes for:

  • Resuscitation efforts in the event of incapacitation.

  • Life-prolonging procedures if survival is unlikely.

  • Care you do or don’t want, such as mechanical ventilation, feeding tubes or kidney (dialysis) machines. 

  • Organ donation. 

  • Religious or philosophical considerations you would like observed in these situations.

🤓Nerdy Tip

A living will’s directions could be too narrow to be useful in some medical situations if it contains dated language. Speak to your health care provider about recommended language to avoid confusion, and consider naming a health care proxy to advocate for you in scenarios your living will doesn’t cover.

3. Make it legally binding.

Requirements can vary by state, but living wills generally include the following:

  • Your legal name, signature and the date the living will was drafted.

  • A statement that you are mentally competent enough to prepare a living will.

  • The name of your health care proxy.

  • A signed statement from two witnesses.

Some states may also require you to get a living will notarized. Make sure to print several copies and give them to your primary care physician, relevant health care providers and health care proxy. You can also file a copy with your local hospital

National Institute on Aging. Preparing a Living Will. Accessed Nov 9, 2023.
.

LegalZoom - Last Will

Trust & Will - Will

Price (one-time)

$89 for Basic will plan, $99 for Comprehensive will plan, $249 for Estate Plan Bundle.

Price (one-time)

Will: one-time fee of $199 per individual or $299 for couples. Trust: one-time fee of $499 per individual or $599 for couples.

Price (annual)

None

Price (annual)

$19 annual membership fee.

Access to attorney support

Yes

Access to attorney support

Yes

Other advance directives

Living wills are one type of advance medical directive.  Others can work with a living will to ensure your wishes are honored in any healthcare scenario.

Medical power of attorney (POA) or health care proxy

You can give a person you trust a medical power of attorney designation — sometimes called a health care proxy — to allow them to make medical decisions for you if you cannot. This person can use your living will as a guide to make immediate decisions, in consultation with your doctors, based on your medical situation.

A health care proxy may be especially helpful if your state places limitations on living wills. In some states, you can’t name a health care proxy in your living will — you’ll need to craft a separate legal document

.

POLST/MOLST form

A portable order for life-sustaining treatment (POLST), or medical order for life-sustaining treatment (MOLST) in some states, is a brightly colored form you keep on your refrigerator. It contains instructions for emergency medical personnel.

A POLST (or MOLST) is similar to a living will because both document your preferences for your medical care, but a POLST is only for emergencies and is more common in nursing homes or for those with terminal illnesses.

Frequently asked questions

Advance directives are recognized in all states, but living wills aren’t legally binding in every state, meaning that you may not be able to guarantee that medical professionals follow your wishes for certain treatments.

In New York, for example, living wills are not addressed by any legal statute, though the state's highest court has upheld them as long as the documents provide "clear and convincing" evidence of the person's wishes.

No, a living will and a last will and testament (will) are not the same. Medical providers will consult your living will for information about your wishes, with the input of your health care proxy, for medical care if you become incapacitated. An executor will consult your last will and testament for instructions on distributing your assets and caring for your children after you die.

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