What Is a Living Will?

Category: Frequently Asked Questions

older man thinking

While it’s not something anybody wants to think about, everyone is going to die someday. You may not get to know how or when you will leave this world, but there is a way to make sure that your final wishes are honored. Unfortunately, not many people seem to plan ahead to ensure that their final wishes are met. A 2017 study published by the National Library of Medicine found that only 29.3% of U.S. adults have a living will. To learn more about living wills, keep reading.

What is a living will? 

According to the Mayo Clinic, a living will is a document that specifies what types of medical intervention you do and do not want to be performed on you in the event that you are incapable of communicating yourself. This includes everything from pain management and infection treatments to whether or not you would want to be kept alive in certain situations.

Living trust vs. will 

There is a distinct difference between a living trust and a will. A living trust allows for the passing on of assets while you’re still alive. A will won’t go into effect until after your death, according to Investopedia.

A living will vs. an advance directive 

A lot of the legal jargon will depend on the state you live in when it comes to preparing your living will. According to the Mayo Clinic, “living will” and “advanced directive” are often used interchangeably to refer to a person’s last wishes.

However, an advance directive is a broader term used to refer to all these types of documents that legally give your loved ones, beneficiaries, and doctors permission to see to it that your wishes be fulfilled. The living will definition is more specific to medical interventions you may or may not want at the end of your life.

A living will and a do not resuscitate (DNR) order 

A do not resuscitate order (DNR) is an advanced directive that states that doctors are not allowed to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if your heart stops, according to the National Cancer Institute (NIH). There is also a do not intubate order (DNI) (according to the Mayo Clinic), which is a document stating that you do not want a tube breathing for you if you stop breathing.

According to the Mayo Clinic, you do not have to have a living will or an advanced directive to have a DNR or a DNI on file in your medical record. If you do wish to have a DNR/DNI, it is best to have the legal documents in your living will and on file in your medical record.

Do I need a medical proxy? 

According to the American Bar Association (ABA), a medical proxy is a person you choose beforehand to make any medical decisions for you if you become unable to make them yourself. Legally, it is not required that you have a medical proxy.

However, considering that it’s impossible to cover every situation that could potentially happen to you in a living will, it is important to name a medical proxy that you trust to fulfill your wishes. In most cases, you should also name backup proxies in case your first choice becomes unreachable.

A living will vs. an advanced care plan 

older couple looking at documents together

According to the Cleveland Clinic, an advanced care plan is essentially a living will, but for a situation in which you’re not dying imminently. Generally, these are done for people who are chronically ill, suffering from a disease that affects their mental faculties (such as Alzheimer’s disease), or for reassurance in case they’re ever suddenly severely injured.

Advanced care planning is a good idea at any age because no one plans on getting into an accident or having a stroke (both of which could make you incapable of communicating your wishes for medical treatment). Plus, this relieves some of the stress from your loved ones from having to make such decisions for you.

How to make a living will 

Using a living will template so that you have a basic idea of what you want before starting the process is the best idea. You can find the right living will form (by state) on the AARP’s website. Depending on the state you live in, you may need to get the documents notarized and discuss everything with your attorney.

Things to consider including in your living will, according to the Mayo Clinic:  

  • In what situation do you want CPR to be performed on you? For example, if you’re terminally ill, would you rather just be allowed to die?
  • Under what circumstances would you want to be intubated?
  • In what situations, and for how long, are you okay with being fed through tubes?
  • Do you want dialysis treatments (a machine that filters your blood when your kidneys fail to do so)? And for how long?  
  • Do you want the most aggressive care when it comes to treating infections with antibiotics and antivirals?
  • How much pain management do you want? For example, some may not want to feel loopy in their last days, and some may prefer to die in the comfort of their home.
  • Do you feel strongly about donating your organs and other tissue? If so, making it clear in a living will that you understand that your body may be kept alive long enough for organ retrieval to be successful is essential.
  • Do you want to donate your body to science/medicine? If so, having a lawyer go over the process of making these arrangements is key to ensuring your wishes are met.

A living will can give you and your loved ones peace of mind in case you’re in an accident or become seriously ill. Getting a living will in place is a good idea, no matter your age or health status. However, a living will is vital for those advanced in years or in poor health. It’s best to do these things while you’re mentally sound and as healthy as possible.


Advance Care Planning and Advance Directives. (2022).

Do not resuscitate order.

Find Advance Directives Forms By State.

Jarrell, M. (2022). Will vs. Trust: What’s the Difference?.

Living wills and advance directives for medical decisions. (2022).

Living Wills, Health Care Proxies, & Advance Health Care Directives. (2022).

Yadav, K., et al. (2017). Approximately One In Three US Adults Completes Any Type Of Advance Directive For End-Of-Life Care.