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How to Make a Living Will

Rebecca Lake
·6 min read
Senior woman signs a living will
Senior woman signs a living will

A living will is a legal document that allows you to specify the kind of care you’d like to receive in end-of-life situations. This is different from an advance healthcare directive, though either one can be an important part of an estate plan. If you’d like to draft a living will, you could get help from an estate planning attorney or you may try using an online software program to create one. Regardless of which one you choose, it’s important to understand how to make a living will to ensure that yours is valid and your wishes are upheld. A financial advisor can offer valuable insight and guidance as you make an estate plan.

What Is a Living Will?

Living wills can be used to spell out what type of healthcare you do or don’t want to receive in end-of-life situations or if you become permanently incapacitated or unconscious. This document tells your doctors and other healthcare providers as well as your family members what type of care you prefer in these situations.

For example, you can include instructions in your living will regarding things like resuscitation, life support and pain management. If you don’t want to be left on life support in a so-called vegetative state, you could communicate that in your living will. Or if you’re terminally ill and only want to receive palliative care you could include that as well.

A living will can be part of an advance healthcare directive that also includes a healthcare power of attorney. This type of document allows someone else, called a healthcare proxy, to make medical decisions on your behalf when you’re unable to. A living will typically only applies to situations where you’re close to death or you’re permanently incapacitated while an advance directive can cover temporary incapacitation. So if you’re unconscious after a car accident, for instance, your healthcare proxy could direct doctors regarding what type of care and treatment you should receive.

How to Make a Living Will

Living will template
Living will template

The first step in making a living will is deciding whether you want to do it yourself or hire an estate planning attorney. Making a living on your own using an online software program may cost less than paying an attorney’s fee. But if you want to be certain that your living will is drafted accurately and legally, you may feel more comfortable getting help from an estate planning professional.

If you choose to make a living will on your own, you can find the necessary forms online. Keep in mind that your state may have a specific form you’re required to use for your living will to be considered valid. There may also be minimum requirements, in some cases identical to what would be required for a simple will, you’ll need to meet to make a living will in your state, including:

  • Being at least 18 (or 19 in some states)

  • Being of sound mind

  • Having the will be properly witnessed

  • Getting the document notarized once it’s complete

Those are the technical aspects of how to make a living will. Your main focus may be on what to include. Again, your state may have a specific format you’ll need to follow. But generally, you’ll need to leave instructions regarding the following:

  • Life-prolonging care. You’ll need to decide what types of life-prolonging treatments, such as blood transfusions, resuscitation or use of a respirator, you do or don’t want to receive.

  • Intravenous feeding. You’ll also need to specify whether you want to be given food and water intravenously if you’re incapacitated and can’t feed yourself.

  • Palliative care. If you’re facing a terminal illness, palliative care can be used to manage pain if you decide to stop other treatments.

It’s important to be as thorough and specific as possible when outlining your wishes so there’s no confusion later on. This ensures that your wishes are carried out and it also relieves your loved ones from the burden of having to guess at what you do or don’t want.

What to Do After Making a Living Will

If you’ve drafted a valid living will according to the laws of your state, the next step is to make your wishes known to other relevant parties. This includes passing copies of your living will to your doctors, hospital and loved ones. If you’re drafting a living will as part of an advance healthcare directive, you’d also want to make sure your healthcare proxy has a copy.

It’s also important to review your living well regularly to make sure it’s still accurate. If you change your mind about the type of care you’d like to receive, then you’d want to update or rewrite your living will to make sure that’s reflected. If not, then your doctors and loved ones would be left to carry out the terms of your original living will, which may conflict with what you actually want.

Who Needs a Living Will?

Senior man exercising
Senior man exercising

A living will is designed for people who have specific wishes regarding care in situations where they have a terminal illness or become permanently incapacitated. If you’re comfortable letting your loved ones decide which type of care should be given to you, then a living will may not be necessary. On the other hand, if you absolutely don’t want a certain type of treatment then a living will is the best way to make that clear to your doctors and family members.

You might consider drafting a living will along with a healthcare power of attorney to ensure that all of the bases are covered, so to speak, when it comes to healthcare decision-making. Having a healthcare proxy can ensure that the terms of the living will are upheld and they can also make decisions about your care for you in situations where you’re only temporarily incapacitated. When choosing a healthcare proxy, it’s important to select someone you can rely on to adhere to your wishes.

The Bottom Line

A living will can be an important part of preparing your family for your death. This kind of document is a relatively straightforward legal document that you may consider including in your financial plan or estate plan if you have specific wishes regarding end-of-life care. Knowing how to make a living will and what it covers can help you decide if it’s something you need to have in place.

Tips for Estate Planning

  • A living will is not the same thing as a last will and testament. Living wills cover healthcare decision-making while a last will and testament deals with the distribution of your assets once you pass away. A will is important to have, since without one your assets are distributed according to the inheritance laws of your state. An estate planning attorney can help you draft a last will and testament as well as a living will. Or you can use online will-making software programs to create a simple will on your own.

  • Consider talking to a financial advisor about whether a living will is something you need. If you don’t have a financial advisor yet, finding one doesn’t have to be a complicated process. SmartAsset’s financial advisor matching tool can get you personalized recommendations, in minutes, for professional advisors in your local area. If you’re ready, get started now.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/GCShutter, ©iStock.com/zimmytws, ©iStock.com/FluxFactory

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