How to Write a Living Will

Learn the steps to create a valid living will and leave instructions about your health care.

Updated by , Attorney · University of Arkansas School of Law

Making a living will can bring peace of mind to you and to your loved ones because the document explains what kind of medical care you want to receive when you cannot speak for yourself. In some states, a living will is combined with another type of document called a health care power of attorney, which allows you to appoint someone to help carry out the wishes set out in your living will, as well as make other decisions about your medical treatment. To find out more about these documents, see Living Wills and Powers of Attorney for Health Care: An Overview.

What Is a Living Will?

First things first. A living will is not the document you use to leave property to loved ones, name an executor, or name a guardian for your children. That document is a traditional will, sometimes called a last will and testament. (Learn more about traditional wills in Nolo's Wills section.) A living will is also not a living trust, which is an alternative to a traditional will.

A living will—sometimes also called a health care declaration—is a document in which you describe the kind of health care you want to receive if you are incapacitated and cannot speak for yourself. It is often paired with a power of attorney for health care, in which you name an agent to make health care decisions on your behalf. Some states combine these two documents into one document called an "advance directive." To confuse things further, many states use different terms for these documents. See the chart at the end of this article to help distinguish some of these terms. You can also learn What Health Care Directives Are Called in Your State.

What to Put in Your Living Will

You can put any wishes you have for medical care in your living will. You can instruct that certain types of care are given, or instruct that certain types of care are not given. For example, you can instruct that you should be put on a ventilator if needed, or instruct that you should never be put on a ventilator. These preferences took on new importance in the wake of the COVID-19 since some patients with dire cases of the novel coronavirus required a ventilator to get enough oxygen. If you have strong feelings about (not) being put on a ventilator, or preference for dying at home, you can be clear about your wishes in your living will, so that your loved ones don't have to guess about what you would want.

Your state's form will request your input about various types of care, including:

  • Life-prolonging medical care. These treatments include: blood transfusions, CPR, diagnostic tests, dialyses, administration of drugs, use of a respirator, and surgery.
  • Food and water. Some permanently unconscious patients can live for a very long time if given intravenous food and water. Some people want this, some don't.
  • Palliative care. Palliative care is care given to reduce pain when one chooses to forego life-prolonging treatments.

Deciding what kind of care you want is not easy. Most people find themselves considering not only their own preferences, but also how their choices will affect their loved ones. And sometimes there is no easy or obvious choice. For example, it may be hard for your child to learn that you don't want to be given food or water if you become permanently unconscious. He or she may prefer to extend your life as long as possible. Learn more about what decisions to consider when making your living will in What Do a Living Will and Power of Attorney for Health Care Cover?

How to Make a Living Will

You do not need a lawyer to make a living will, although you can get one from a lawyer if you prefer to. Every state has its own requirements for making a living will, so if you make one on your own, make sure you find a form that meets your state's requirements. You may be able to find free living will forms at:

You can also make a living will and health care power of attorney using WillMaker & Trust, which also allows you to make a traditional will, a simple living trust, a power of attorney for finances, transfer on death deeds, and other estate planning documents.

After you make your living will, you will need to sign it and have it witnessed or notarized, or both. The requirements for making your living will legal depends on your state's law. Learn more about your state's laws in Living Wills and Medical Powers of Attorney.

You may want to consider drafting up other medical orders, such as a do not resuscitate order if you don't want CPR to prolong your life. Or consider making a Physician Order for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) form, which is an order signed by your doctor that describes the end-of-life medical treatment you want to receive in an emergency.

What to Do With Your Signed Living Will

Consider giving a copy of your living will to:

  • family members
  • your health care agent
  • your doctor(s), and
  • your hospital or care facility.

If you become incapacitated, your document will state your wishes for you, but it will only be effective if those who are treating you know about it. So although you may be reluctant to bring these issues up with your loved ones and health care professionals, it is best that they know about your wishes and about your living will.

Health Care Directive Terminology

The documents used to state your wishes for health care go by many names. Here's a chart to help you sort through the terminology. Below you'll see the many different names that are used to refer to the same document. Terminology varies widely by state; you can look up what your state calls its health care documents.


Also Called

What It Means

Living Will

· Health Care Declaration

- Document Directing Health Care

· Directive to Physicians

- Declaration to Physicians

· Health Care Directive

· Medical Directive

A legal document in which you state your wishes about life support and other kinds of medical treatments. The document takes effect if you can't communicate your own health care wishes.

Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care

· Medical Power of Attorney

· Designation of Health Care Surrogate

· Patient Advocate Designation

- Health Care Proxy or Proxy Directive

- Appointment of Health Care Representative

A legal document in which you give another person permission to make medical decisions for you if you are unable to make those decisions yourself.

Advanced Health Care Directive

- Advance Medical Directive

- Health Care Directive

A legal document that includes both a health care declaration and a durable power of attorney for health care. It is currently used in more than one-third of the states.

Health Care Agent

· Attorney-in-Fact for Health Care

· Patient Advocate

· Health Care Proxy

· Surrogate

· Health Care Representative

The person you name in your durable power of attorney for health care to make medical decisions for you if you cannot make them yourself.

Ready to make your living will or power of attorney for health care? WillMaker & Trust makes it easy to create important estate planning documents that comply with your state's laws.

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