Page Reviewed / Updated – July 26, 2022

It may not be the most pleasant thing to think about, but every senior needs to consider what would happen should a dire medical situation incapacitate them.

One of the worst things to pile on top of a medical emergency is confusion over which treatments doctors and nurses should administer. That is why it’s of paramount importance that every senior has a living will. Also called an advance directive, this simple document informs medical professionals how to treat patients who cannot advocate for themselves.

In the not-too-distant past, it was easy to dismiss having to deal with this potentially unpleasant task by writing it off as too complicated, confusing or expensive. Even as recently as May 2020, according to a Gallup poll, only 45% of U.S. adults reported having a living will.

But there’s no reason that anyone who wants a living will shouldn’t be able to easily create one.

In recent years, a host of online legal services, including many specifically dealing with elder law, have taken a lot of the guesswork — as well as expense — out of the process. The result is that it’s never been easier to create a living will in just a few steps, and it can even be done for free.

Thinking about the creation of a living will is also a good reminder to assess life insurance options. Nowadays, there are many types of life insurance, some of which involve quite complicated plans. It’s important for seniors to vet these options carefully to make sure they pick the best life insurance policy that meets their estate-planning needs and their price point.

This article covers everything seniors need to know about creating a living will by breaking the process into five simple steps. While it’s not necessarily pleasant to consider medical emergency and end-of-life decisions, this simple guide provides an easy-to-follow template that can help take some anxieties out of the process.

Step 1: Determine Whether To Use an Attorney

This initial decision sets the stage for the rest of the creation of the living will, so it’s important to give this step serious consideration. There are two options to consider.

Option one is to hire an attorney who specializes in estate planning or an elder law attorney. When deciding to go this route, a senior still needs to answer all the questions in the following four steps of this article, but they will have the guidance of a seasoned attorney who knows all the requirements and state regulations. The downside of this approach, of course, is that attorneys can cost a great deal of money.

Option two is to  take a do-it-yourself approach. It’s entirely possible for a senior to skip hiring an attorney and create a living will on their own. When taking this approach, of course, it’s even more important to go through the remaining steps carefully because an attorney won’t be reviewing the living will for any mistakes or omissions.

Step 2: Ensure Adherence to State Requirements

Every state has different requirements that must be followed to make sure a living will is valid. The last thing that loved ones or anyone else surrounding an unfortunate medical or end-of-life situation want is to be confronted with an invalid or unenforceable living will.

At the most basic level, anyone making a living will must be 18 years old and of sound mind. Beyond that, every state has its own rules and regulations; for instance, some states require that a living will be notarized or have one or more witnesses present at the signing of a living will.

One important note: Not every state will honor a living will from another state. Anyone who spends significant amounts of time in two different states should consider creating two state-specific living wills. 

Seniors can find the living will form for their state here.  

Step 3: Fill Out the Living Will With Preferred Treatment Options and Power of Attorney

This is the step in which a senior determines what medical decisions should be made and who should make them. These decisions can be made independently, but it’s also appropriate to discuss them with a doctor or with loved ones.

A living will should clearly spell out what should happen regarding the following areas:

  • Administering life-saving treatment. This should address at what point a natural death is preferred as opposed to undergoing potentially long, painful and expensive treatments.
  • This should also address whether, in the most serious of cases, life support such as feeding tubes, a ventilator or dialysis should be applied or terminated.
  • Organ donation wishes
  • Religious rites to be administered

This is also the step to decide who will be given medical power of attorney. This person is granted the right to make decisions when a patient is incapacitated and to make calls regarding any treatments or courses of medical action that aren’t explicitly covered in the living will.

Before deciding who to designate as medical power of attorney, discuss the responsibilities with them to make sure they’re willing and able to sign on.

Step 4: Make One or More Physical Copies of the Living Will and Disclose Its Location

After filling out the living will, the document should be printed. Make sure the document is notarized and signed by witnesses if that is required according to state regulations. 

Ideally, this document should be kept in more than one place so there’s no confusion over finding a copy. The location of this document should be shared with loved ones, including the designated medical power of attorney.

The living will should be kept in a sealed envelope if there’s any sensitivity over anyone seeing its contents before the document is needed.

It’s also a good idea to give a copy of the living will to your physician and the hospital before a major procedure. 

Step 5: Revise and Revisit the Living Will

Feelings can change about end-of-life care. Everyone with a living will should review it from time to time to make sure they still feel the same way about these important life questions. 

If a decision is made to update the living will, everyone impacted by such a revision — from physicians to loved ones to the designated medical power of attorney — should be given an updated copy of the living will. When updating a living will, it’s important to once again follow the notarizing and signature-witness rules of the state to ensure the updated living will isn’t declared invalid in favor of a previous living will.

Final Thoughts

These five simple steps show that drawing up a living will doesn’t need to be daunting or even time-consuming. Having a living will on file gives seniors peace of mind knowing that their medical wishes will be followed.

A living will also removes much of the burden from loved ones, as the document directs the medical course to be undertaken. Instead of loved ones having to make painful, potentially difficult decisions about a family member’s medical care, they can simply be present and focus their love and thoughts on the patient’s healing.