Last Will & Testament vs. Living Will: What’s the Difference?

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Since they share similar names, there is often confusion about the difference between a Will and a Living Will. They are both important estate planning documents but they serve two quite different purposes. A Will becomes effective when you die while a Living Will serves – as its name implies – while you are living.

Differences Between a Will and a Living Will

A Will states your choices for the distribution of your estate and beneficiaries after your  death.   A Will also allows you to nominate guardians for your minor children and choose who you want to serve as your Personal representative or Executor of your estate. Basically this is the person that makes sure your wishes as expressed in your Will are upheld. A Living Will conveys your health care wishes if you are incapacitated and cannot make your own medical decisions. It allows you to express your desires for health care treatment  when you are at the end of life.

Let’s break it down in more detail and look at each document.

What Is a Will?

Also known as a Last Will and Testament, a Will allows you to list your inheritors and how your estate will be divided among them upon your passing. Simply put, you spell out who gets what in this legally binding document. 

A Personal Representative/Executor – is a person you name to oversee your Will after you are deceased. The Personal  Representative will manage your estate, pay off final bills, close accounts, and make notifications and make sure your assets are distributed as you expressed in your Will  

A Will lets you:

  1. Specify your final wishes. With a Will, you can ensure that your home, possessions, and investment accounts will go to individuals of your choosing – a family member, friend, even a charity. You, not the courts or anyone else, have full control over your assets and heirs.
  2. Decide who will care for your minor children. If the unthinkable happens, who would care for your minor children? By nominating a guardian in your Will, the person of your choosing would take care and custody of your child. Without a Will in place when you die, the courts would appoint a guardian – possibly someone you would not want to raise your son or daughter.
  3. Avoid family conflicts. If you die without a Will, the probate court will take over your estate and distribute it in accordance with the intestacy laws of your state. Regardless of your wishes, a judge or a court appointed administrator will divvy up your assets and decide who receives them. Imagine the rift this could cause among your loved ones.

What Is a Living Will?

A Living Will lets you express what type of medical treatment you want, or don’t want, in the event you cannot make your own decisions and you are at the end of life. This legal document provides clear instructions to your loved ones, your Health Care Proxy, and healthcare providers in the time of an emergency where quick decisions must be made.  

For example, you have a massive heart attack and lapse into a coma. Or, you have a serious illness where you have become incapacitated. The doctors tell your family that you need to be put on life support or need other life-sustaining treatments. You may not want to have these procedures. This is when your Living Will kicks in. 

If it is stated in your Living Will you would want to decline life support in a hopeless situation, your family can communicate that wish to the healthcare providers. This takes away any doubt what medical treatment you want and avoids nasty quarrels and heartache among your loved ones who may be conflicted as to what to do.

Why would you want to have a Living Will?

  1. Express your health care directives. Specify what type of health care treatment you want provided or withheld in a particular circumstance. This would include resuscitation, nutritional feeding tubes, and ventilators.
  2. Avoids court involvement. If you don’t have a Living Will and develop a dire medical condition and cannot make your own treatment choices, a judge would appoint a guardian to make decisions on your behalf. In this case, your wishes may not be carried out. Having a Living Will leaves your decisions in your hands instead of the courts.
  3. Long-term-care wishes. A Living Will is not only for emergency situations. You can also indicate your choices for treatment if you are in the late stages of Alzheimer’s Disease or a debilitating illness that renders you mentally impaired.

Summarizing the Difference Between a Last Will and Testament and a Living Will

As you can see, there is a major difference between a Will and A Living Will. Regardless of age or health condition, everyone should have both that would give you and your family peace of mind. A Gentreo Health Care Proxy includes questions which address life sustaining treatment decisions so that your healthcare treatments will be upheld like they would be in a Living Will.


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