Last week my grandmother’s doctor asked her if she had a living will during her medical appointment. She answered, “Yes, I have a will, but I don’t remember it being called a living will.” Her doctor explained that a living will is a written statement detailing a person’s desires regarding their medical treatment in circumstances in which they are no longer able to express informed consent, especially an advance care directive.
Here is how my grandmother’s last will and testament differs from the living will she discussed with her doctor. The purpose of a last will and testament is to distribute your assets after you pass away. I’ve not been to the reading of a will, but I understand that a will allows you to decide what you would like to go to whom, when, and how. Without a will, state law will determine who inherits your assets and handles your estate. Your will, as well as a living trust, allows you to structure the asset distribution to help avoid estate taxes, protect your heirs from creditors and space out the distribution over time.
The purpose of a living will is to memorialize your health care wishes so that your family, doctors, and/or health care proxy (the person making your health care decisions) know what you want done if you are not able to make decisions for yourself. You are able to specify whether you would like to be kept alive by artificial means if there is no hope of recovery. You are also able to specify the level of care that you want to receive if you are in an accident or a coma.
Both a will and a living will are important pieces of any estate plan. Each should be prepared under the guidance of an attorney, and both need to be witnessed by two disinterested persons. That is where the similarities end. If you don’t already have a will or living will in place, contact an attorney who can explain the difference between the two documents and prepare the proper estate plan for your individual needs.