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How a Living will helps ensure your last wishes are carried out

Estate, Gift, & Trust Planning

Jonathan Davis

According to a University of Pennsylvania report, approximately 37% of Americans have “advance directives,” which include living wills and power-of-attorney designations. These documents specify what should occur and who should make medical decisions should someone become seriously ill and unable to make these decisions for him- or herself.

If you belong to the other 63% or so of Americans who haven’t made such arrangements, put it at the top of your to-do list. Your peace of mind — and that of your family — depend on it.

Differentiate between documents

Many people confuse a living will with a last will and testament, but they aren’t the same. These separate documents serve different, but vital, purposes.

A last will and testament is what you probably think of when you hear the term “will.” This document details how your assets will be distributed when you die. A living will (or health care directive) details how life-sustaining medical treatment decisions would be made if you were to become incapacitated and unable to communicate them yourself.

The thought of becoming terminally ill or entering a coma isn’t pleasant, which is one reason many people put off creating a living will. However, it’s important to think through what you’d like to happen should this ever occur. A living will can help ensure your wishes are carried out and provide guidance and reassurance to family members at a time they’re likely to be emotionally distressed.

Say, for example, you’re in a permanent vegetative state as a result of an auto accident and have no medical chance of coming out of the coma. Would you want your life to be artificially prolonged by machines and feeding tubes? You are the one who should make this decision, not your grief-stricken spouse, parents or other loved ones who may not be sure what your wishes would be — or who might not abide by them.

Provide power of attorney

Often, a living will is drafted in conjunction with two other documents: a durable power of attorney for property and a health care power of attorney.

The durable power of attorney identifies someone who can handle your financial affairs, such as paying bills and undertaking other routine tasks, should you become incapacitated. The health care power of attorney becomes effective if you’re incapacitated, but not terminal or in a vegetative state. Your designee can make medical decisions on your behalf — for example, agreeing to a surgical procedure recommended by your physician — if you’re unable to do so. But this person can’t officially make life-sustaining choices. That requires a living will.

Enlist expert help

As tempting as do-it-yourself legal document kits may seem, it’s much better to work with an attorney when drafting a living will, durable power of attorney and power of attorney for health care. These documents are too important to get wrong. Another tip: Discuss the details of your living will and other directives with your loved ones so they’ll know what to expect should they ever be required to act.

Finally, remember that these documents aren’t cast in stone. Revisit them if you’ve changed your mind about how you’d like life-sustaining decisions to be made or if your life circumstances (for example, you got married or your parents died) have changed.

Securities and investment advisory services offered through qualified registered representatives of MML Investors Services, LLC, Member SIPC. The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. Our employees and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. Individuals are encouraged to seek advice from their own tax or legal counsel.