Creating a living will — in conjunction with a health care proxy and other estate planning documents — can be critical for protecting loved ones and ensuring medical wishes are followed.
These basic estate planning documents can be useful for someone young and healthy as well as for older individuals and those with significant medical diagnoses.
Before creating a living will, be armed with these key questions to work through with doctors and attorneys.
— What is a living will?
— What’s the difference between a will, a living will and a living trust?
— Do I need a living will?
— How do I get a living will?
— How much does it cost to put together a living will?
— What should be included in a living will?
— Do I need anything else?
— Where should I put my living will?
What Is a Living Will?
A living will is a written document that communicates an individual’s desire for medical treatment in the event they are unable to express those wishes themselves. It is often used in conjunction with other estate planning documents, such as a health care proxy.
“It frequently provides that, if there is a medical determination that you will not recover, you do not wish to be kept alive by artificial means, but you do want palliative care such as pain medication,” Thomas R. Fazio, an attorney at Blodnick Fazio & Clark in New York, wrote in an email, “Or it may express your desire that medical professionals do everything in their power to prolong your life, or anything in between those extremes.”
What’s the Difference Between a Will, a Living Will and a Living Trust?
A living will typically communicates medical and health wishes, while a will and living trust focus on a client’s assets.
“A living will is significantly different from a last will and testament or a living trust,” Troy Alexander Werner, an attorney at the Werner Law Firm in California, wrote in an email. “A last will and testament and living trusts deal primarily with who you wish to have inherit your assets when you pass away, and who will be in charge of distributing those assets to your beneficiaries.”
While the documents help individuals achieve different estate planning goals, Werner says most people need at least a will, living will and financial power of attorney.
“For individuals who own a home, real property, or have minor children, a living trust is generally also recommended to avoid having to deal with probate court to inherit assets and to generally make things as easy as possible for your beneficiaries,” he says.
Do I Need a Living Will?
A living will can accomplish certain goals, but experts say it’s important to understand what purpose the living will is serving in your estate plan before jumping to check off a standard list of estate planning documents.
“When clients say they want a document I never ask why, I say, ‘What do you want that document to do for you or what do you think that document will do for you?'” says Vincent E. Bonazzoli, an attorney and founder of Family Estate Planning Law Group in Massachusetts. “You have to get beyond the assumptions.”
Most people need a living will, but the living will should also be created in conjunction with other documents and tailored to meet their specific needs.
How Do I Get a Living Will?
It’s important to consult a professional before creating a living will. Poor estate planning can lead to more negative outcomes than positive, so individuals should start with a consultation with an attorney to determine whether a living will accomplishes their goals and speak with a doctor to learn more.
Once it is determined a living will is the best document for the job, clients will talk through various scenarios and determine their specific wishes.
How Much Does It Cost to Put Together a Living Will?
Costs vary depending on which documents a client needs. Werner says a complete estate plan including multiple documents usually costs $2,000 to $3,000. Other attorneys may be able to complete a simple living will for a few hundred dollars.
There are less expensive options to write and create estate planning documents online, but Bonazzoli cautions individuals, saying, “You get what you pay for.”
What Should Be Included in a Living Will?
A living will can be generic or detailed. It should cover treatments for which an individual has specific desires.
“It could cover no artificial means of breathing, hydration and things like that,” Bonazzoli says. “It’s an instruction, and sometimes living wills will be more detailed if there are certain religious beliefs or strong beliefs you want to comply with. The intent is, when you’re unable to communicate your medical wishes, there’s a document there that communicates them.”
A living will can also include an individual’s desire to donate their organs for transplant or research purposes.
Do I Need Anything Else?
Often included in a living will or created in concert with a living will, a health care proxy can be a very powerful tool. The proxy is a designated person to express your wishes to the doctors involved in your care and make medical decisions for you, and many individuals will name a health care proxy when they create their living will.
In addition, some individuals may want to sign a do-not-resuscitate order instructing health care providers to not perform CPR should their breathing or heartbeat stop. This includes procedures as simple as mouth-to-mouth breathing or more complex like intubation. Experts say the DNR can be included in a living will if a client so desires.
Where Should I Put My Living Will?
Once the living will is signed and executed, copies should be distributed to the relevant people. This might include your doctor’s office, your health care proxy and your durable power of attorney. Keep the original stored safely at home.
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Update 06/15/21: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.