What Is a Living Will, and What Does It Mean to Me?

When an RLG team member sits down with a client to discuss designing their estate planning documents, we are often met with confusion when we bring up the topic of creating a  “Living Will.” Clients often have already completed a Living Will document at the hospital before going in for surgery or through AARP – in this document, you would specify “medical treatments you would want to be used and those you would not want to be used to keep you alive, as well as your preferences for other medical decisions, such as pain management or organ donation” (Mayo Clinic Staff).  However, in our office, we set up the Living Will so that this document seeks to address only one medical-related decision, which we will cover in the next paragraph. Clients also often think that the “Living Will” is the same as the “Last Will and Testament” because both documents share the word “Will” in the title. This article is intended to clarify the confusion about what a Living Will document is and what purpose it serves.

A Living Will is a legal document that is part of your “advance healthcare directives.” It contains a set of legal instructions laying out your wishes for the termination of artificial treatment if you are unable to make your own healthcare decisions (for example, if you are in a coma or vegetative state and there is no chance of meaningful recovery). The Living Will works in conjunction with another key advance healthcare directive document – the Healthcare Power of Attorney (HCPOA) document. The HCPOA document appoints one or more individuals to make healthcare decisions on your behalf if you cannot make them yourself. Although the HCPOA document is central to one’s advance healthcare directives, the Living Will is even more significant for some. But what is a Living Will?

Imagine that you are given a multiple-choice test that reads as follows:

In the event that I am terminally ill, with no chance of a meaningful recovery, whom do you want to make the final “end-of-life” decision?

  1. Two physicians
  2. The person whom I have appointed to make healthcare decisions on my behalf (aka my Healthcare Representative)

If you answered “A.” to the above question, you are saying that you want to execute a Living Will.  This document allows you to clearly state in no uncertain terms that in the event you are terminally ill with no possibility of recovery, and you cannot live without artificial support (i.e., if you are irreversibly brain dead and cannot breathe without a ventilator), you authorize two physicians to make the final “end-of-life” decision to terminate life support (it is important to stress that typically, physicians would only make this decision after consulting with the family, but they take away the burden of having a family member make this decision).

If you answered “B.”, you choose NOT to sign a Living Will – instead, the “end-of-life” decision will remain the responsibility of your Healthcare Representative. Simply put, if you want the end-of-life decision to be made by two physicians, you sign a Living Will. If you want the end-of-life decision made by the family member or friend you have appointed as your Healthcare Representative, you do not need to sign a Living Will.

Although the terms may be simple, the decision of whether or not to sign a Living Will is often very difficult. It is important to remember that there is no right or wrong answer – signing a Living Will is a completely subjective decision based on your personal feelings and values, as well as the personal feelings and values of your healthcare representatives. On the one hand, some people say, “I am going to sign a Living Will as I do not want my Healthcare Representatives to bear the emotional burden of making the end-of-life decision, even if they know that is what I want.” On the other hand, others may say, “ I am not going to sign a Living Will as I do not feel comfortable with two strangers making such an important decision that will impact my family and me.” Both points of view are equally valid. Whatever your decision may be, it is essential to have an open and honest discussion with those closest to you about your choices for end-of-life care.


Mayo Clinic Staff. Living wills and advance directives for medical decisions. Mayo Clinic, 2022,  https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/in-depth/living-wills/art-20046303