Difference Between a Will and a Living Will

By Lee Hall, J.D.

Difference Between a Will and a Living Will

By Lee Hall, J.D.

Wills and living wills serve different purposes. A will, formally known as a last will and testament, guides the distribution of your assets after death. In contrast, a living will guides end-of-life decisions if you are not able to make them yourself. It declares what you want done with your own body if you are on life support and enter an irreversible coma or vegetative state.

Woman shuffling through stack of paper while sitting on couch

Writing a Last Will and Testament

Through your will, you declare what should happen to your estate after your death. Appoint an executor to represent you. It could be your financial adviser or lawyer, but many people choose a spouse or close relative. It's common to have an executor who is also a beneficiary to the will. You can appoint a backup executor too.

Your executor first pays probate, funeral, and burial costs and seeks out creditors to pay from your estate. After creditors receive their payments, your remaining assets go to the people or organizations you have named in the will. Be sure to leave your assets to people who can afford the associated payments and upkeep.

Name guardians who are willing to take care of your minor children if necessary. Appoint someone who is willing to adopt your pet(s) and reserve funds for their care. Decide and explain what you'd like done with your online accounts and leave user names and passwords, so that others can take care of it.

Check your state law to find out if your will needs witnesses to sign and watch you sign your will. Most states do.

Put your signed will in a safe spot known to your family and executor. Be aware that significant life changes could create a need for changes to your will, through a codicil or the making of a new will, and other estate documents.

Creating a Living Will

If you face surgery or an incurable illness or simply wish to have a thorough estate plan, create a living will.

Then, if you lose the ability to communicate your preferences, your doctor and those close to you know what end-of-life decisions to make on such issues as feeding and resuscitation.

Through a living will you can also permit the donation of your organs or the autopsy, burial, or cremation of your body.

You may wish to create a durable power of attorney for other treatment issues or payment instructions for healthcare. Be sure the person to whom you assign this power is mature, dependable, and religiously or ethically capable of carrying out your decisions.

In the best-case scenario, you have time to discuss your living will with your doctor well in advance and gain a thorough understanding of the common medical options to anticipate and their possible impacts. Be sure your primary care doctor is on the same page with you and your decisions.

The basic difference between a will and a living will is the time when it is executed. A will takes legal effect upon death. A living will, on the other hand, gives instructions to your family and doctors about what medical treatment you do and don't wish to have, should you become incapacitated. The insight of an experienced attorney can be valuable with regard to these two important documents and how each one suits your specific needs.

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.