What is a Living Will and Why Do I Need One?

The Basics: 

Thinking or talking about your own death is usually not on the top of a person’s list of favorite things to do.  Of course it may be considered a little bit morbid, especially when you think about planning it.  Why bother to plan for something that you know is going to happen anyway?  Unless you’re planning to commit suicide you can’t plan your own death right?  

Well not exactly, as there is at least one critical scenario that you may want to plan for - what do I want to happen if I am on life support and I have little or no hope of recovery?  It is this scenario (and other similar situations) where it is absolutely necessary to have a living will in place.

A living will is a legal document (sometimes known as an "advanced health care directive") that provides instructions as to your medical wishes should you ever become incapacitated and are unable to speak your wishes.  A living will can be a simple hand written statement with your signature on it, or it can be a fairly complex document prepared with your family attorney.  There are many legal sites online (think LegalZoom) that also have templates for preparing living wills.  In any event, before you create your living will here are several things you should do to prepare.

·         Think carefully about what your wishes are.  This is a very personal decision and you should make sure that you know what you want and you are rational.  This is not something you want to prepare when you are in a heightened emotional state (after a breakup, death in the family, etc.).  Search your soul and make sure you are acting in accordance with your religious and/or personal belief system.


·         Discuss your wishes with family and loved ones.  This decision affects your family circle almost as much as it affects you as they may be the ones asked to terminate your life support or visit you in the hospital for the next several months or years.


·         Figure out who will help you prepare the document.  You can certainly prepare a living will yourself, but it is advisable to get some help.  You can use an attorney who has experience or specializes in this area or you can go to a cemetery or mortuary where there is usually expert staff very knowledgeable about living will preparation.


·         Decide who will carry out your wishes.  The person in charge of carrying out your wishes is your healthcare proxy and they have power of attorney.  This means that no one can override what this person says as long as they are acting in accordance with your living will.  This person could be your wife, child or even a personal friend – the choice is yours and should be spelled out in your living will.


·         Get your paperwork together.  Critical paperwork and information that may be important and relevant include your vital statistics (name, address, social security number, etc.), will and testament, funeral arrangement documents, bank account numbers, insurance policies, etc.  In addition, any information that may be valuable in preparing an obituary (fraternity affiliations, groups you belong to, etc.) should be consolidated or placed where your proxy can find them quickly.


·         Make sure your proxy knows where the living will is.  After you complete your living will and have gathered your vital statistics and paperwork make sure your proxy (and/or your attorney) knows where the paperwork is so they can access it quickly when they need it.

What you may not know: 

70% of funeral plans are made by the wife.  85% of children want the parent(s) to make these plans.

What you need to know: 

Make sure you are of “sound mind” when you create your living will.  Do not wait until the Alzheimer’s has started to kick in, and don’t do this when you are otherwise mentally incapacitated or are on mind altering medication.  These situations may call into question the validity of the living will.

Although you can do this alone it is highly advisable to consult with an expert (an attorney or an estate planner).  Alternately, if you have made funeral arrangements with a cemetery, you should go to that location and ask if they have staff to help you create the living will and to go over options with you.  See the article “How to Plan Your Funeral and Relieve Your Family’s Burden”.

Creating a living will should cost between $200 and $500.

A person under the age of 18 may not be able to serve as your proxy.  Check the rules for your state.

Resources Who Can Help: 

National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization - A nonprofit organization whose mission is advocacy for the rights of terminally ill Americans.


Rahsaan Lewis, Advanced Planner at Rolling Hills Memorial Park, was a contributor to this article.

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