Do You Really Need a Living Will?


When the kids are in bed and our Slack notifications are turned off for the day, few of us want to forgo another episode of Succession in favor of burdening our friends, siblings, or spouse with a convo about what we would want to happen were we to become incapacitated and unable to make decisions for ourselves. No? Just us?

When he was in his 20s, Brian Walsh did just that. He rode a motorcycle at the time, and he knew that activity came with inherent risks. He also knew that if he did have an accident, it would be stressful and upsetting enough for his wife without her having to guess whether he would want to be put on a ventilator if he were unable to breathe on his own. So Walsh had this unpleasant conversation with his wife. They talked about his wishes, and he got a living will.

Walsh, now a CFP at SoFi, an online personal finance platform (and, BTW, no longer a motorcycle rider), encourages people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s alike to create a living will—and to think of it as a gift they give their loved ones.

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What is a living will?

At its most basic, a living will is a legal document that outlines your wishes in case an accident or illness prevents you from speaking on your own behalf. It may outline your feelings about artificial respiration, hydration, nutrition, and CPR. It should not be confused with a last will and testament, which is the legal document that explains what you want to happen after you die; a living will covers events while you are still living. Because living wills help you if you have an accident, they are not just for those with chronic illnesses or are of advanced age. Most experts say anyone over the age of 18 should have one.

While a living will outlines your wishes, it doesn't necessarily empower another person to act on your behalf. For that, you'll need a power of attorney. In some states, these two documents can be combined together into an advance health care directive. If you don't have a living will and you need to go under anesthesia, your hospital may have you sign a document specifically asking you whether or not you wish to be resuscitated if something goes wrong. Unlike a living will or power of attorney, which are good until you change them (more on that later), these orders are generally only good for 30 days or sometimes just for that particular hospital visit.

A living will gives the person you trust to make decisions on your behalf the information they need. It can also help prevent arguments if family members disagree on how to handle such an emergency.

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While such documents are generally designed to last for a long time, it is worth revisiting it to update when your circumstances change, such as if you marry or get divorced, or your sister, who was listed as your power of attorney, moves across the country. It is not a bad idea to have a plan B, either. If you list your spouse on power of attorney and you are both in an accident, perhaps it is your brother who will then act on your behalf.

How to make a living will

Okay, you're convinced you need a living will. You can have an attorney draw one up, and it might not be particularly expensive if you have other estate planning documents, like a will, done at the same time. But free and low-cost online forms are available for download, and one of those, which you then sign and have notarized, may be sufficient.

Once you have a living will, don't just keep it in your desk drawer. It doesn't do any good if no one knows it exists or what it says. You need to have that conversation Walsh had with his wife. The person who you are giving the power to speak for you must know what you want, and the hospital should know who to call as your emergency contact.

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As is the case with most legal documents, specifics vary by state. Depending on where you live, there may be some variation concerning what needs to be included or what cannot be included. Some states honor living wills from other states, others do not. Some states may have laws that invalidate living will directives during pregnancy. If you have state-specific concerns, working with a local attorney is a good choice.

"Many people neglect this planning, because death is a topic in our society that is avoided," Timothy Jordan, a professor of public health who teaches about death and dying at The University of Toledo, tells Health. "By filling out these documents, some feel that they are 'jinxing' themselves… Thus, many just deny the reality of death and never complete their advance directives."

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