Living Will Definition: What is a Living Will?
By definition, a living will is a legal document that outlines the type of life-sustaining and end-of-life medical care you want to receive in the event you’re unable to express your wishes during a life-or-death situation, or are unable to communicate due to incapacitation.
Living wills are used if you’re suffering from a terminal illness or mortal injury that will cause you to die in the immediate future without intervention, or if you fall into a state of permanent unconsciousness.
Other terms for a living will
For your reference, the following all have the same meaning as living will:
- Advance Directive
- Directive to Physicians
- Personal Directive
- Advance Medical Directive
Although the document names are often used synonymously, a living will is just one type of advance directive. To learn more about the differences between the two documents, read our article that explains the differences between an Advance Directive vs a Living Will.
You may choose to use multiple advance directives to outline your medical preferences in a crisis.
For example, you could pair your living will with a:
- Medical Power of Attorney — a document that allows you to appoint a healthcare agent to make medical decisions on your behalf.
- Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) — a form that instructs medical professionals to withhold or withdraw resuscitation in the event you stop breathing or your heart stops beating.
Advance directives ensure your healthcare instructions will be followed, and that someone you trust is advocating for your care.
Living Will vs Will
Living wills often get confused with other end-of-life planning documents, such as a last will and testament. However, despite the name, a living will and a last will and testament cover drastically different topics.
A last will and testament describes how you want your estate to be dealt with after your death.
It can give instructions on how to distribute your property and possessions, how to address your debts, charitable contributions, and bequests, and allows you to designate a guardian to care for dependent minors or elders.
A last will and testament only goes into effect upon your death, and it’s not legally binding when you’re alive.
Unlike a last will and testament, a living will details medical instructions to be followed while you’re alive.
Why You Should Have a Living Will
When life-threatening circumstances arise, a living will is used to communicate your refusal of, or desire for, medical treatment. In the event a treatment would be used to delay the dying process, or when there is no chance of recovery, dictating your life-support choices could provide you a more natural death.
If you don’t have a living will, healthcare professionals may be legally required to take measures to prolong your life.
Without your written consent, it can be difficult for your loved ones to refuse administration of life-saving care or withdraw life-sustaining medical treatments — even if they know it’s against your wishes.
A living will protects yourself and loved ones from uncertainty when making life or death decisions in a medical emergency.
What to Include in Your Living Will
Your living will form includes the following information:
- Declarant: you, the individual who wants to describe specific end-of-life wishes
- Life-sustaining Preferences: what medical treatments (such as artificial nutrition and hydration) you want and don’t want to receive
- Organ Donation: description of your organ / tissue donation preferences
- Legally Effective Date: your living will becomes legally binding when you sign it, but it doesn’t become effective until you’ve been declared incompetent by doctors
- Witnesses: your state might require you to have one or two witnesses sign your living will
- Notary Signatures: some states require a notary public to certify the document
With regard to life-sustaining measures, a living will addresses your preferences regarding:
- Tube feeding
- Artificial hydration
- Pain management
- Organ or tissue donation
- Use of dialysis and breathing machines
- Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR)
- Diagnostic testing
- Blood transfusion
- Administration of drugs
Living Will FAQ
What does it mean to be terminally ill or injured?
You’re considered terminally ill or injured when a qualified doctor determines that you have an incurable condition that will likely cause you to pass away in the near future.
What does it mean to be permanently unconscious?
You’re considered permanently unconscious when one or more qualified doctors determine, within a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that:
- you can no longer think,
- you can no longer feel anything,
- you can no longer knowingly move, or,
- you are no longer aware of being alive.
The doctor(s) must believe that this condition will last indefinitely without hope for improvement, and have watched you long enough to determine that you’re permanently unconscious.
It’s important to note that some states require two doctors to provide written certification of your incapacitation before your living will becomes effective.
Your living will only comes into effect when you’ve been diagnosed as unable to make medical decisions on your own.
Now that you know what a living will is, you can easily create your own for free using our online living will builder. It asks easy-to-follow questions that will help you define your end-of-life preferences.