In a nutshell, a living will form is a special legal document that outlines an individual’s wishes regarding medical treatments that may prolong or save their life. It does not necessarily refer to health care wishes regarding other types of medical treatment, so its uses are comparatively specific.
A living will form is ideally prepared before it’s needed. This way, it can be used if the individual described in the living will can’t make medical decisions for themselves. For instance, a person might be in a medically-induced coma or otherwise unresponsive due to injuries.
In such cases, the family or medical practitioners in charge of a person in a vegetative state might wonder if that person should remain on life support, if they should be treated further, or if they should be allowed to pass away. Such questions can be answered if the individual has a living will already drafted, as it should clearly state whether the person wants to remain on life support or continue to receive life-prolonging treatment.
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Because of their subject matter, living wills are usually utilized by the elderly or by those who deal with chronic (and potentially life-threatening) medical conditions. This being said, anyone over the age of 18 can, and arguably should, draft a living will. This will protect you and your family from having to make difficult medical decisions on your behalf if something terrible occurs.
Living wills can be found in the offices of doctors, lawyers, and from several online sources as PDFs or downloadable document templates. If you would like to see some examples, our site provides free living will templates ideal for use right now, or you can use our step-by-step form builder – this allows you to create customizable and printable living wills ideal for any situation.
Regardless of the template, a living will can address three main topics.
A living will can detail the affected person’s opinion on life support. Life support, in a medical context, is any machinery or medical practice used to keep a person alive if they are in a vegetative state or are otherwise unresponsive. Furthermore, life support is used when it’s unclear whether a person will ever come out of a vegetative state.
Life support represents ongoing medical costs and potential heavy burdens for existing family members since the person receiving treatment obviously cannot pay for things themselves. As a result, a living will should outline whether the affected individual:
A living will may also provide answers regarding life-sustaining treatments. Such treatments are distinct from life-support – these are treatments that may be expensive, experimental, or potentially harmful to quality of life in the event that the affected individual does recover.
An example is a life-sustaining treatment that involves the removal of one’s limbs or other significant bodily tissues and parts to save their life. A living will can tell whether the affected individual wants their tissue removed or if they would rather pass away intact.
On the other hand, life-sustaining treatments might be too expensive for any family to reasonably accommodate. The affected individual might want to prevent their family from going into debt just to extend their life after an accident.
The answers to these questions are not always clear. For instance, an elderly person who is already sickly may decide to simply pass away without the invasive medical procedures that might extend their life for several more weeks or months. Ultimately, a living will is supposed to dispel any confusion regarding these matters and make the medical wishes of the affected individual totally clear to be carried out by doctors.
A living will can also outline any “end of life” care wishes. These are any wishes or requests that an affected person might have regarding the treatment of their body, the medicine that is used for their treatment, or any other matters. In many cases, such wishes have a religious or spiritual foundation or context and can help medical practitioners avoid any accidentally insensitive behaviors.
A living will can also address end-of-life wishes regarding organ donation. For instance, someone may wish for their organs to be harvested immediately so that they can be better used for other individuals. Others may opt out of organ donation to preserve their body for burial or other memorial purposes.
You should keep your living will in a few good locations. If you spend a lot of time on the document and don’t tell anyone where to find it, even your health care agent can’t point to the document if a medical professional asks them a pointed question about your care. Your doctor’s office should have a copy at a minimum, but you should also give a copy to your medical power of attorney for health care proxy. Keep a third copy at home in a safe location for future reference or for later editing considerations, and perhaps a fourth at a law firm involved in the drafting process.
A living will is a specific document only used for a few particular cases, but it’s often confused with similar documents. Let’s break down the differences now.
A living trust is a separate legal entity that is created by an individual with the intent of holding or owning their assets after a legal transfer. A living trust is similar to other types of trusts in that properties or assets are invested and spent for the benefit of one or more beneficiaries, although the beneficiary for most living trusts is most often the trust creator.
Like all trusts, living trusts are also managed by trustees. The trust maker usually serves in this capacity, although some different rules can apply (especially in the case of irrevocable trusts). Trust makers can name successor trustees, too, who serve as someone to manage the trust if the trust maker becomes mentally incapacitated or is otherwise unable to make decisions themselves.
A living trust, in short, is a regular trust that can help you manage your affairs so long as you are currently alive and well. Furthermore, a living trust can maintain the economic status quo for your assets and other affairs when you are sick, injured, or otherwise potentially at your deathbed.
Upon death, a successor trustee can disperse a living trust’s assets to any named beneficiaries. Alternatively, the details of a living trust may specify that the trust remains running and active for future beneficiaries or other purposes.
The biggest similarity between both of these documents is that they both protect against mental incapacitation. Living wills handle deathbed of life care decisions on your behalf when you can’t make them for yourself. Living trusts handle the management of your assets and other economic affairs when you are similarly incapacitated.
An advance directive (also known as an advance health care directive) is a legal order that encompasses any decisions that might revolve around your future medical care. Like a living will, an advance directive may come into play whenever there is a severe medical situation or when you are incapacitated or cannot make life care decisions for your own needs or health. Comas, stroke, dementia, and other conditions all qualify.
An advance directive can specify your preferences regarding medical treatments, life-sustaining efforts, and even types of resuscitation. Furthermore, specific directions, like those involving whether medical doctors should use feeding tubes or carry out certain surgeries, may also be included.
An advance directive can name a health care proxy, which are individuals like family members or partners that may be given the authority to make medical decisions for you if you are incapacitated. An advance directive also does not need to be a written or formal document; it can even be verbal instructions to a health care provider.
Technically speaking, a living will is a type of advance directive rather than the other way around. However, it’s critical to understand that an advance directive can also encompass other activities and rules (like the aforementioned appointing a health care proxy). In other words, not every advance directive is a living will, but all living wills are types of advance directives.
A DNR is a “do not resuscitate” order, and that’s it. A DNR does not specify whether doctors should insert feeding tubes or perform any other life extension techniques. It only refers to resuscitation efforts. In other words, and DNR refers to situations when you (or the patient the DNR pertains to) is clinically dead. Note that this does not refer to brain death, at which point resuscitation is impossible anyway.
The order prevents EMTs or other medical professionals from attempting a revival. This means they can’t perform practices like using defibrillator paddles, chest compressions, or any other techniques in an attempt to revive the “dead” patient in question.
However, doctors may still use life extension medical practices and techniques like feeding tubes, medicines, surgeries, and so on because the patient is not yet dead. Furthermore, DNR orders do not require doctors to take the affected patient off of life support machinery. In this way, a DNR is a very limited order for a specific type of circumstance.
Individuals may request DNR orders because of medical reasons, quality-of-life concerns, or because of religious practices. Thankfully, DNRs can easily be obtained from a physician’s office. Such documents are to be signed by both the patient and their primary physician (and sometimes a notary public). The original copy of the document has to be presented to EMTs or other doctors to prevent them from attempting resuscitation.
This does mean that an EMT or other doctor won’t attempt to revive someone with a DNR if they are unaware of the existing order.
Technically, a living will may contain a DNR within its writing. However, this is not a necessity.
A medical power of attorney is similar to the health care proxy mentioned before with advance directives. A living will allows you to appoint a medical power of attorney ahead of time to act as your healthcare decision-maker in the event that you are incapacitated.
This is distinct from a living will in many cases, as a living will outlines your healthcare decisions about various medical conditions or actions ahead of time. A living will could theoretically make it so that you don’t need a health care proxy or medical power of attorney to make any decisions at all.
However, if you want to leave the final decision up to the circumstances at the time, you can appoint a medical power of attorney in your living will or as a separate document.
A medical power of attorney may be useful if your primary concerns are the costs for resuscitation or other life-extension medical care. If costs appear bearable, someone with medical power of attorney could tell doctors to save your life, or they could decide otherwise if things swing the other way.
Medical powers of attorney or healthcare proxy responsibilities may be anyone you like but are most often family, close friends, or partners.
As mentioned, a healthcare proxy is the same thing as a medical power of attorney. A healthcare proxy can be appointed in a living will or separately depending on the healthcare wishes of the individual.
Creating a living will is not something to be done lightly. You should take a lot of time to think about what you want to be outlined in the document, especially as it’s something that pertains only to you and your medical options.
Many people find thinking of and preparing for death to be difficult at best. Take some time or even a weekend to thoroughly consider your living will decisions before setting out to create the document. This will prevent you from going back to modify it over and over.
Step 1. Think on What to Include in Your Living Will
The first step is to think deeply about what you want your living will to state. This heavily depends on your current medical circumstances. Someone in perfect health will have a completely different living will from someone who is facing a chronic condition that will likely be terminal at some point. However, you may have specific wishes regarding your religious practices or your desires for organ donation. Consider your mortality and the decisions you want to be made on your deathbed carefully to avoid any mishaps. Additionally, remember that any decisions made in this document are essentially final – they cannot be taken back unless you go back and modify the document before something bad happens.
Step 2. Choose Your End-of-life Wishes and Treatments
If you would like, look into all of the available end-of-life options and treatments so you can write down specific answers for each one. For instance, there are multiple methods of resuscitation that EMTs and doctors might use to preserve your life. There are also multiple types of life-support equipment that might be used to keep you alive even if you enter a coma. Furthermore, consider any wishes that you might have for your funeral, cremation, or any other last rites.
Step 3. Select Your Healthcare Agent
Pick a healthcare agent. This is often (though not always) the same person as your healthcare proxy or medical power of attorney. Your healthcare agent is the person directed to carry out the wishes of your living will if they are present for your medical accident or condition. The agent should be someone you trust completely because they will make decisions regarding your health and make sure that your living will is carried out properly. If you would like, they may also be in charge of retrieving the document for review.
Step 4. Complete the Living Will Form
After finalizing all of your decisions, it’s time to fill out the form. Sign the living will make it an active legal document.
This is a sample living will example to help you fill out and complete the real thing. You can use these steps to fill out our living will template or create your own using our form-builder.
Step 1 – Review the General Information
Your living will document should have a summary of general information and explanation about the document’s purpose. This should only last for a few paragraphs up to a page.
It also outlines your rights and what authorities you are allowed to give your agent.
Go over the text and make sure that everything is to your satisfaction, then proceed.
Step 2 – Living Will or Advance Health Care Directive
This is where you’ll start signing things. There will be a place where you “declare” your intentions legally by signing your:
These pieces of information indicate that you are voluntarily filling out this living will for the purposes described in the first section.
Step 3 – Health Care Decisions
The following section deals will all your permissions, decisions, and rights concerning health care for life-prolonging or life-sustaining treatment, specifically. There will be spots for you to initial next to specific medical treatments or activities – initialing next any of these items indicate that you do not want medical personnel to administer those treatments.
Initial next to treatments that you do not want to be carried out in the event of your incapacitation and move on.
Step 4 – End of Life Decisions
The next section is about any end-of-life care medical treatment decisions. There will be a list of conditions that may be met in the event of your incapacitation. Initialing next to them indicates that you do not want medical professionals to prolong your life using medicine, machinery, or other treatments.
Initial anywhere you like, then continue.
There should be a sentence summarizing your emotional and mental competency. In other words, make sure that the document is explicit about how you are of sound mind at the time of filling the document out.
Some living wills provide space at the bottom of the section for any additional instructions for medical treatment. Feel free to write in whatever you feel is necessary or if you have special requests for your remains.
Step 5 – Medical Power of Attorney
The next section deals with medical powers of attorney. Fill out your name (which also identifies you as the “principal”), which leads to you naming and identifying a lawful attorney-in-fact or agent to act in your place for healthcare decisions if you are incapacitated.
You should next fill out the information for your medical power of attorney. Write their:
Some documents allow you to repeat this process with an additional medical power of attorney in the event that the first agent is unable to fulfill their duties. Again, fill out the name, address, and phone number of this person if applicable.
The rest of the section outlines the various duties and responsibilities that you cede to your medical power of attorney. It specifies exactly what decisions they can make so there’s no question when the time comes. Furthermore, it will include several sections in which you revoke any prior powers of attorney for healthcare and similar living will documents.
Step 6 – Witness and Notary Acknowledgements
The last section of a living will include a final signature in front of two witnesses (or whatever is required by your state).
Fill out the following sections:
You also need to sign this document in front of a notary public.
The witness acknowledgments section beneath the document is where witnesses should fill out their identifying information. It includes their:
The notary has a section of their own beneath everything else. They fill out their notary-specific information including what state and county they are licensed to act as a notary. They’ll write in your name to indicate that they were present, then sign one last time at the bottom and include their official seal along with their commission expiration date.
Living wills are complex documents, so let’s answer some frequently asked questions you might have about them.
Yes, but not because of any disagreement with the living will’s contents. Instead, a living will may be contested by placing a formal objection against the document’s overall validity. In other words, you must contest the will by claiming that it’s not a valid document in the first place.
You can do this in several ways. For instance, most states require that a living will include:
If any of these clauses are broken, you may have cause to contest a living will. If a successful case for contesting is made, doctors will usually withhold final decisions if possible but will often default to attempting to keep the affected person alive until another decision is made.
Yes, and at any time. You must inform everyone who has a copy of the living will in writing that it has been canceled, then redraw the living will with the desired edits. You will need to go through the same witnessing and signing process as before. If your doctor’s office does not receive notification that the living will was revoked or edited, they may decide to use the original version of the will.
A living will does not necessarily cost anything, and in fact, you can use the free living wills we offer on our site to get started on a living will or other forms to print right now. Downloading a free living will form is just the start for many people, however.
In many cases, individuals will want their living will forms (after they have been properly filled out and signed) notarized at a bank or another legal institution for between $10 and $15 or so. You may also have your living will notarized for free if you know someone who is a licensed notary public.
On the other hand, a living will might cost a lot more if you decide to have a law firm look over the document and make sure you have everything you want to be outlined correctly. Such a precaution could help you in the event that there’s a bit of confusing writing within your living will, and you want to make sure there aren’t any hiccups in the event of an accident.
Using an attorney or law firm in this way may cost you several hundred dollars in legal fees, although it heavily depends on the attorney in question and your existing relationship with them.
Without a living will, your family may need to make difficult decisions regarding how your life is sustained or how you are resuscitated without knowing your opinion on things. This can be emotionally taxing. Furthermore, it can be financially very risky because medical practitioners will often attempt to save the lives of individuals under their care without regard for ongoing medical costs.
A living will takes care of all of these uncertainties and makes things easier for you, your family, and your doctor in the event that you are incapacitated.