Creating a living will is a task that’s often neglected on a financial to-do list — but it shouldn’t be.
One reason it’s neglected is that plenty of people don’t know what a living will is — or they know but understandably aren’t interested in thinking about end-of-life issues. According to a 2020 survey of 2,400 Americans from the caregiving website Caring.com, only 6% of people have a living will.
So if you’re wondering what a living will is — and whether you need one — we’ll try to get you up to speed.
[Read: How Living Longer Will Impact Your Retirement.]
What Is a Living Will?
A living will is a legal document, also known as an advance health care directive, that details how you want to be cared for if something unexpectedly impacts your health and you wind up on life support. A living will also forces you to answer those unthinkable questions, such as whether or not you want doctors to do everything they can to keep you alive, even if the outlook is hopeless, or give them permission to let you go if you’re incapacitated.
If you’re thinking of creating a living will, here are some key questions you’ll want to ask yourself throughout the process.
— What’s the difference between a will, a living will and a living trust?
— Do I really need a living will?
— How do I write a living will?
— How much does it cost to put together a living will?
— What should be included in a living will?
— Where should I put my living will?
— Once I write the living will, is there anything else I should think about?
What’s the Difference Between a Will, a Living Will and a Living Trust?
A living will is often confused with a will, which is a legal document that explains your wishes for your assets after you die.
A living will ultimately decides whether you’re going to die soon (such as being taken off life support) or whether you will die later (as in, doctors will do everything they can to keep you around).
People also get thrown by the term “living trust,” which is an estate planning document that addresses how your assets will be managed if you are incapacitated.
For instance, if you own a variety of valuable items and assets, after you’re gone, your will would designate who would receive your house, furniture and artwork collection. However, if you’re in a coma, a living trust will assign somebody to make these choices for you. This person would be able to use your bank account to pay your bills and make financial decisions, including whether or not to sell your home. Without a living trust, those types of decisions can be made by a court.
You’ll also want to decide if your living trust should be revocable or irrevocable. With an irrevocable trust, you can’t make any changes, so in the event you awake from a coma, you wouldn’t be able to make choices about your assets. Still, some people opt for irrevocable trusts for tax-shelter benefits.
[Read: 10 Steps to Writing a Will]
Do I Really Need a Living Will?
The answer depends on how you feel about the possibility of being alive but not cognizant, such as after a terrible car accident or if you suffer from severe dementia.
If you feel strongly either way about life-preserving procedures, then you need a living will. Some people simply don’t want to be hooked up to a machine to keep them alive. Others may feel, “Even if things are hopeless, do whatever you can to keep me around.”
If not for your own peace of mind, you may want to consider creating a living will anyway. Think about your loved ones, who may not know what you’d prefer and may agonize over the decision of whether or not to invoke life-saving procedures.
How Do I Write a Living Will?
You’ll fill out a form, which you can acquire from an estate attorney or a hospital. You can also download it online, but you’ll have to get it notarized, and attorneys and legal websites such as the U.S. Living Will Registry caution that living will forms on the internet may be outdated. State laws change often, so you’ll want to make sure the living will form you’re filling out is current. You can do this on your own, but it’s also a wise idea to consult a professional.
“The best people to turn to are those who have seen many iterations of living wills and have seen what works and what doesn’t work. In other words, estate planners and doctors are in the best position to help you think through your choices and to understand how those choices could play out in real life,” says Kimberly Hanlon, an attorney for Luc?re Legal LLC, a small business and estate law firm in Minneapolis.
“Don’t wait until the last minute to get it done,” Hanlon cautions. “I’ve seen cases where the person meant to get their planning done, but never got around to it, and their health had significantly declined by the time they were trying to get it done.”
How Much Does It Cost to Put Together a Living Will?
If you’re looking to create a living will in a cost-effective way, you could download a free living will form from a source that you trust, such as RocketLawyer.com or LawDepot.com, or get a form at your local hospital and have it notarized at your bank for around $10 or $15. These templates are often comprehensive and provide space for you to list the names of your physicians as well as emergency contact numbers. These forms also address specific situations, such as pregnancy; on the form, you can specify your wishes for medical care in the event you become incapacitated.
But if you are going to hire a lawyer to help you put together your living will for yourself and your spouse, expect to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in legal fees, depending on the complexity of your financial situation.
What Should Be Included in a Living Will?
You may want to state whether you want CPR or shock equipment used on you if you go into cardiac arrest, as well as if you would like antibiotics or antivirals to treat infections, among other end-of-life wishes pertaining to health care. For instance, you may want to discuss palliative care, a type of medicine that promotes compassionate comfort care for people in a serious or life-limiting illness. It’s a little different than hospice care, which is also a form of compassionate care, but at a time when the patient is considered to be at the end of his or her life.
You also may want to include offering medical instructions on tissue or organ donations after you die.
Regardless, when putting together your living will, you’ll want to complete two related documents, advises Matthew Erskine, managing partner of Erskine & Erskine, a law firm that specializes in estate planning based in Worcester, Massachusetts.
He says that you’ll want to appoint people to the roles of durable power of attorney and health care proxy.
The durable power of attorney allows a trusted person, like a family member or close friend, to make financial decisions for you and manage your money, including tasks such as paying your bills or talking to the IRS on your behalf.
Meanwhile, a health care proxy is the person who is given the responsibility of making health care decisions when you can’t. In the living will, you’ll need to explain in writing what types of health care treatments you do or don’t want performed.
“Having all three (a living will, a durable power of attorney and a health care proxy) is like having fire insurance: You hope you will never need them, but if you do, they save you a lot of pain and money,” Erskine says. He also points out that “by their nature, these documents, and their authority, bleed over into each other.”
For instance, approving a medical procedure may also be a financial decision, if that means paying for costs that aren’t approved by insurance, he says. To save family members from conflict, you may want your health care proxy and durable power of attorney to be the same person.
Make sure the person you want to handle these decisions is up to the task, Hanlon says, pointing out that you’re asking someone to do something difficult and stressful. “It’s unfair to put someone in that position without their knowledge and consent,” she says.
[Read: Ways to Teach Kids About Money.]
Where Should I Put My Living Will?
You won’t do yourself much good if you lavish time, money, emotions and energy on your living will and then don’t tell anyone where to find it. So make sure your doctor’s office has a copy, and the person or people who are your health care proxy and durable power of attorney should also have one. You can keep the original at home.
Once I Write the Living Will, Is There Anything Else I Should Think About?
For the most part, no. If you’re done with the living will, you’re done.
That said, things do and will change, if you stick around long enough, and hopefully you will.
So every 10 years or so, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to dust off your living will and take a look at it. Maybe the person you’ve assigned to be your durable power of attorney is ill or no longer living.
Once you’re done making the living will, check on it occasionally and make sure it doesn’t need to be tweaked — and if you do make changes, if your doctor or family members have it, they should get your updated versions.
But otherwise, once you’re done, you can go off and enjoy living, instead of thinking about living wills.