How to Make a Living Will


A living will is a straightforward, easy-to-complete document that allows you to specify what should happen in the event that you’re no longer able to make decisions about your health. Not sure where to start or what to consider? Read on.

Why you need a living will

Creating a living will allows you to have a say in your treatment even if you’re unable to speak on your behalf. A living will details to doctors, other medical professionals, and your family what kind of medical treatment you want when you’re incapacitated.

Because no form can cover every possible future scenario, you’ll also need to select a health care proxy, or health care power of attorney, to speak for you and make decisions about your treatment on your behalf. 

(Note: Although the terms living will and advance directive are often used interchangeably, here we use living will to refer to your directions about your wishes, and advance directive to refer to the combination of your living will and your health care proxy.)

How to get started

Each state is different when it comes to creating a living will. Some states require two separate documents: a living will and a power of attorney for health care. Others simplify the process by merely having an advance directive that combines the two. A few states accommodate both.

You can find these documents and forms online, or use the form at Five Wishes ($5) which meets the legal requirements for advance directives in 42 states and Washington, D.C. In the other eight states, you can complete a Five Wishes document and then attach it to your state’s required documents. Or find your state forms here:

You’ll need to sign these forms in front of witnesses. Some states require notarization, which you can complete for a nominal fee at many notary offices or even your local bank.

You don’t need an attorney to draft your living will. You might find it convenient to use an attorney if you’d like to take care of all of your estate planning paperwork at the same time; for example, if you’ve hired a lawyer to write your will and want to do your advance directive at the same time. They’ll likely charge you their standard hourly rate, and the complete process could range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. But it’s important to remember that you don’t have to involve an attorney. You can download your state’s proper forms and fill them out yourself.

Finally, your doctor (or nurse practitioner, if you see one) can also help you make a living will. You may find it helpful to talk through the various possible scenarios with a medical professional, especially if you’re currently dealing with aging-related medical problems or being treated for a serious illness. As of January 1, 2016, Medicare (and some private insurance) reimburses doctors for 30-minute face-to-face conversations about advance care planning, which includes discussing end-of-life care and helping you create an advance directive.

What goes into a living will

A living will encourages people to confront the what-ifs of medical treatment. A typical living will form presents various medical and end-of-life scenarios (for example, if you were in a coma or had permanent, severe brain damage) and asks you what type of care or interventions you would or would not want in those situations (for example, a feeding tube or ventilator). While it may feel uncomfortable to ponder these questions, getting your wishes down on paper now ensures that if you’re ever unable to speak for yourself you’ll still receive the type of care that matters to you.

Here are a few starting points, which you can consider alone or talk through with your doctor and/or loved ones:

  • What quality of life is important to me? For some people, independence and full mobility might be top concerns; for others, longevity trumps any hesitation about an indefinite stay at a nursing facility or living with partial paralysis.
  • How heavily should possible pain and discomfort guide my care decisions?
  • Would I want treatment only if a cure is possible, or under any circumstances?
  • How much medical detail do I want shared with my family or friends?
  • If I’m unlikely to recover, do I want everything done to sustain my life for as long as possible?
  • If I’m at the end of my life, how do I want to be treated? How much will location (hospice, nursing home, at home) matter to me, in my final days?
  • What are my preferences around organ donation?

As you work through these questions in a living will, rest assured that it isn’t a static document. You can change it and update it as your life and wishes change. If you do have a change of heart about desired care, make sure to update your advance directive appropriately. You can simply make a new one, which will invalidate the old one; just make sure to give copies of the new advance directive to anyone who might have copies of the old one, so they’re aware of the change.

What to do with your completed living will

Because living wills only come into play when you’re incapacitated, you’ll want to make sure that everyone will know where to locate it if something were to happen to you. Give a copy to your physician to be included in your medical records, and give additional copies to those closest to you—your spouse, siblings, children, or close friends. And be sure to discuss your wishes with your doctor and loved ones, too. That’s the best way to ensure that the medical care you receive follows your wishes and desires.

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