What is a living will?

Published: December, 2014

The term "living will" can be confusing.

Simply put, a living will is a legally binding document that allows you to express your preferences for medical treatment under certain circumstances. For example, you can set out how aggressive you'd like your care to be as the end of life nears. This written record guides your doctors and loved ones in caring for you, should you ever be unable to communicate your wishes directly.

Be aware that in many states, living wills are invalid during pregnancy. If you want your wishes honored whether or not you're pregnant, be sure to put that in your living will. Doing so won't guarantee that your wishes are followed, but it will improve the chances.

Laws governing what information should go into a living will also vary by state. It is also important to discuss your feelings with your doctors. These conversations, along with documents like a Health Decisions Worksheet, can help guide your family and doctors in many situations.

For more on setting goals for end-of-life care and taking control of your medical care, buy Living Wills: A guide to advance directives, the health care power of attorney, and other key documents, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.

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