Living Will: Protection for Your Wishes at End-of-Life

In this article...
  • Find out how a living will can protect your wishes during end-of-life care or other types of medical crisis, and learn more about how this legal document works.

A living will is a popular legal document and one of the first estate-planning documents many people create. But while most estate planning is about determining how your worldly possessions will be distributed to others when you pass away, a living will is more about protecting your interests while you're still alive. 

Other Names for a Living Will

You may already have a living will and not realize it or know this document by another name for other reasons. Some other names this type of document goes by include:

  • Advance health care directive
  • Advance directive
  • Medical directive
  • Personal directive

What Does a Living Will Do?

No matter what title the document goes by, its purpose is to record your wishes about medical care so others know those preferences if you're incapacitated. One of the biggest parts of this document typically covers the types of treatments you want to receive or wish to refuse given a life-threatening condition that leaves you unable to make your own medical decisions.

In some cases, the living will also include a health care proxy or health care power of attorney. In this section of the document, you name a person as your legal representative regarding medical matters if you can't make your own decisions. The document also provides some instructions about your wishes, but it's also important to talk with that person too and let them know what your wishes are.   

Is a Living Will the Same as a Will?

A living will is not the same as a last will and testament, which is what people generally mean when they use the term "will" in this context. A last will and testament lays out your wishes for how your possessions should be distributed to loved ones and other beneficiaries when you pass away. A living will records your preferences for medical care.

Is a Living Will Legally Binding?

As long as you record your wishes in a manner in keeping with the laws of your state, yes, a living will is legally binding. This means that loved ones can't make choices in opposition to the living will if that document has been created appropriately and is on file.

In some cases, however, medical providers such as doctors may be able to legally ignore a living will. This is rare and usually involves ethical or moral opposition; if this is the case, your physician is supposed to disclose any issues with your living will once you present it. This is just one reason to create a living will and get it on file and discuss it with your family and providers well before you might need it.

Can You Write Your Own Living Will?

You can create your own living will using the proper forms, but you probably want to avoid simply recording your preferences on a piece of paper with a pen. The rules of every state are different, and if you don't follow the right format and include all the relevant information, you may risk your living will being deemed not legally binding.

AARP offers links to advance directive forms for all states. Advance directives are the same thing as living wills in this context. 

You can also work with an attorney or legal service to create a legally binding living will for your state.