A living will and last will and testament are two terms that are used seemingly interchangeably — but what exactly is the difference between a living will and a last will and testament? And should you make one or both of these documents part of your estate plan?
The Difference Between a Will and Living Will
A last will and testament, or will, declares how you want your personal matters and property to be handled after you pass on. A living will informs healthcare professionals of your end-of-life medical wishes while you’re still alive.
In contrast to a living will, which expires once a person dies, a last will and testament isn’t legally binding while a person is still alive. It can only be enforced upon death.
You may have heard both of these terms used interchangeably, but what exactly is a living will and a last will and testament? And should you make either of these documents part of your estate plan?
What is a Living Will?
A living will is a document that allows you to make critical health care decisions while you’re still capable — specifically, before you become incapacitated and cannot make those decisions on your own. It communicates to medical professionals whether you want to receive forms of life support such as artificial respiration and intravenous feedings.
Through a living will, you can also direct doctors to suspend all life support, or express your preference for other types of medical treatments.
For example, it’s common to state that palliative care for decreasing pain and suffering should be administered, whereas extraordinary measures to prolong life, like cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), shouldn’t be used.
In addition to establishing health care directives, a living will allows you to name someone as your agent or health care proxy, giving them the power to make decisions about your medical care. Some living wills also give health care agents the power to order an autopsy or donate your organs upon death.
A living will doesn’t go into effect until you become incapacitated, and lasts until you either recover or pass on. That means if you go into a coma or become mentally disabled, your treatment preferences are laid out for healthcare professionals to follow.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of creating a living will, however, is that it helps you and your family avoid costly legal battles over how best to treat you, as well as reduce any guilty feelings among family members who have conflicting ideas about your end-of-life treatment.
What is a Will?
A last will and testament gives instructions on dealing with your estate after your death.
A will helps survivors distribute your assets and personal property according to your wishes. It can also be used to name a guardian for your children (if they are still minors) and disabled family members, as well as allow cash or property donations to be transferred to certain individuals or private interest groups.
Part of the process of creating a last will and testament involves naming an executor of your estate. The executor, usually a close family member or friend, is charged with cataloging the assets of your estate, handling the probate process, and paying any remaining debts or bills. Anything left over is distributed by the executor to your beneficiaries.
Understand what probate is and how the process relates to a last will before deciding if this document is right for you.
Do You Need a Living Will or a Last Will and Testament?
Ultimately, it’s your personal choice whether to make either a living will, a last will and testament, or both documents. However, most estate planners will advise you to draw up both to ensure your health care providers understand your treatment preferences, and your loved ones understand how you want your property distributed.
While the benefits of having estate-planning documents in place are incalculable, the actual cost of creating a living will or last will and testament is relatively inexpensive.
Hiring a lawyer to create either a last will or living will typically costs between $100 to $500 depending on your location. For last wills in particular, these costs increase drastically depending on the size of your estate.
Alternatively, you can learn how to write a will in 10 easy-to-follow steps to reduce costs further.
While the topic of your future care may be difficult to broach, the value of legally documenting your end-of-life preferences is clear.