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The basics of wills and directives: 4 things to know

Talking about wills and directives may not be pleasant. Here are some basics to get started.

Most people don’t like talking about unpleasant things happening to them -- such as end-of-life events. However, avoiding thinking about your own death (or wishing that it never happens) doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

Perhaps that’s why only a third of U.S. adults have made their plans known to family members by creating advance directives — even though health professionals have been shining a light on the importance of them for nearly 50 years.1

The reality is that unexpected health issues and accidents can happen to anyone at any time. And when they do, you and your loved ones are deeply affected.

Families feel a devastating loss when a loved one dies — it’s unavoidable. What you can avoid, however, is undue stress and tension among family members when your wishes haven’t been clearly communicated beforehand.

Imagine this: You’re unconscious and your loved ones are gathered around your hospital bedside debating about whether you’d want the medical staff to put you on life support. A living will or healthcare directive removes any ambiguity. Or fast forward to the time when your children are trying to decide what happens to the possessions and property you’ve left behind. A last will and testament takes care of it.

Planning for end-of-life events now may not seem pleasant, but it will save your family time, energy and unnecessary stress in the future. And your wishes will be known — and followed.

Here are some basics to get the conversation started.

Why are healthcare directives important? 

When you can’t make known your health care wishes due to serious illness or injury, then you need something or someone you trust to do it for you.

Health care directives are just what the doctor ordered when it comes to expressing your medical wishes in life-challenging situations, when you are physically or mentally unable to do so.

And advance directives, such as a living will and a durable power of attorney (also known as a health care proxy), are especially important to have at the ready during these serious life-and-death moments.

What is a living will?   

Healthy people want to live for as long as possible. However, when you’re not healthy — due to serious illness or injury — and your quality of life has severely been affected with little hope of recovery, you may feel differently. A living will is a legal document that can direct a patient’s physician to provide, withhold or withdraw life-sustaining procedures in certain circumstances.

It’s important to think about possible scenarios and how you’d want to be cared for, and to put it in writing in case you’re unable to express your health care wishes in the future.

In emergency situations, when you can’t communicate your desires, a living will can serve as your voice. 

If a patient is terminally ill or is in a coma due to an accident and would die without a life-sustaining device (such as a ventilator or a feeding tube) or without medical treatment (like resuscitation and dialysis), the medical care team can follow a patient’s instructions outlined in the living will.

Living wills also include instructions surrounding organ and tissue donation. To be sure you create a living will that’s valid and in accordance with state law, consult an attorney.

Also, once you complete your living will, don’t hide it away. Store the original in a safe place and give copies of your living will to your doctor and your power of attorney.

What is a power of attorney?  

A legal document, such as a living will, is essential in life-and-death matters; however, a power of attorney, or health care proxy, is just as important.

A power of attorney is a legal document through which you give another individual the authority to make certain decisions or to act on your behalf when you are unable to do so. Depending on your jurisdiction, this authorized individual is known as your attorney-in-fact or agent.

You’ll want to appoint a trusted and responsible family member or friend who is 18 years of age or older as your attorney-in-fact or agent — because he or she will make serious life-altering medical decisions on your behalf.

That’s why you want to openly communicate with your attorney-in-fact or agent and loved ones about what’s important to you: Is it to be as comfortable as possible even if that means your life might be shortened? Or would you rather deal with the pain and spend as many days as you can with your loved ones?

If you have open discussions about these matters now, your power of attorney can interpret your wishes and make a thoughtful decision when an emergency arises.

Dr. Diane Meier, director of the New York-based Center to Advance Palliative Care, told National Public Radio (NPR): “Treatment directives of any kind all assume we can anticipate the future with accuracy. I think that’s an illusion. What needs to happen is a recognition that decisions need to be made in real time and in context.”1

Because your attorney-in-fact or agent — by all legal intents and purposes — is essentially you, you need to give it some serious thought as to who it will be. “How to Choose a Health Care Proxy & How to Be a Health Care Proxy” offers some great tips. One is this: When deciding who should be your health care proxy, consider if the person would be adept at making quick decisions that reflect your values and expressed wishes in very specific circumstances.2

What is a will and testament?

A will and testament is a legal document in which you express your wishes as to how your property will be distributed after your death. This document lets you control what happens to your property and affairs. It also allows you to designate an executor to carry out your directions and a guardian if children are involved. 

Why should I make a last will and testament?

Many people know they should make a will but never make it a priority—so less than half (42 percent) the population has one.3

Don’t think you have enough possessions or property to matter if you have a will or not?

Consider this: If you don’t make a will, then the state in which you live and/or have property in will determine how your possessions that are subject to probate are distributed, instead of it being you who decides who inherits what. And don’t you want a trusted executor that you assigned to carry out your directions?

Also, make sure that the people you have listed as beneficiaries on your retirement plans and life insurance policies are up to date and in line with what’s stated in your will. If not, whomever is named as a beneficiary on these accounts will receive the payout — even if your will states otherwise.

If you’re a parent to minor children, then it’s even more imperative you have a will, so you can assign someone to be their legal guardian. Do you have a beloved pet? Don’t forget to assign someone to care for Fido, too.

Work with an attorney licensed in your state to draft a will that works for you. Or, if you want to save money, there are preprinted forms and computer software programs that allow you to do it yourself. Though it’s always a good idea for a trusted attorney to review the document.

For the sake of your family — and for your peace of mind — don’t put off making plans for the day you might not be able to do so. Get started today.

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End of life planning resources

End-of-life planning decisions can be difficult to think about and discuss with loved ones. We've prepared information to help guide you through the process — from wills, directives and final arrangements to resources for coping with the death of a loved one.

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Location of Important Documents (pdf, 05/01/2020)
Always follow your attorney's directions on storing documents.

1. Andrews, Michelle. “Many Avoid End-Of-Life Care Planning, Study Finds”, August 2, 2017.

2. Institute for Healthcare Improvement and The Conversation Project, "How to choose a health care proxy & how to be a health care proxy," March, 2017.

3. DiUlio, Nick. "More than half of American adults don't have a will, 2017 survey shows,", July 2, 2018.

This information should not be considered legal advice. Financial professionals do not provide legal advice. Consult a licensed attorney regarding your situation.

DOFU 12-2018