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Will Vs. Living Will: Key Differences to Note

Written by Chloe Clark
 about the author
3 minute readLast updated June 19, 2023
Reviewed by Denise LettauAttorney Denise Lettau has over 15 years of experience in the wealth management industry.

Uncertainty is often one of the big stresses of aging. Fortunately, a few basic legal documents can help older adults prepare both logistically and mentally for whatever future may bring. Two such documents are living wills and last wills. Understanding the difference between these types of wills, as well as how and when to create them, is an essential aspect of later-life planning.

Key Takeaways

  1. Living wills and last wills are both important legal documents. Living wills spell out wishes for medical care during one's lifetime while last wills specify how one's estate should be distributed after death.
  2. Living wills help guide physicians and caregivers. This type of legal document can be important when someone is facing a terminal illness or long-term condition.
  3. Last wills are an important part of estate planning. This document should also name a trusted family member, friend, or lawyer to manage one's estate.
  4. Talking to a physician, financial advisor, and/or an estate planning attorney can be beneficial. These experts can help your parents plan legally, financially, and medically for their future.

What is a last will?

A last will is a legal document that details how a person’s personal property and assets should be distributed after they have died. These documents usually outline specific inheritors and name an executor who will administer the will writer’s estate. This may be a lawyer, a trusted family member, or a friend.[01]
To ensure that a will is legally binding, it’s essential to follow any state rules that are in place. An estate planning lawyer can help ensure this and guide your parent through the process so that everything they would like covered is done so in full and specific terms.[01]

What is a living will?

A living will is a type of advanced directive. It is a legal document that enables a person to provide medical instructions and preferences that should be followed if they’re unable to make or communicate these decisions. For example, living wills are especially important in cases where someone has lapsed into a coma or is in a later stage of dementia. Typically living wills specify types of medical treatment someone wants, medical measures they do not wish to receive, whether their organs can be donated, and more.[02]
In order to make a living will, your parent will need to locate the proper forms for their state and fill them out. These forms can often be found online and requested in health care settings. A doctor can help your parent consider different hypothetical scenarios and ensure their living will reflects their wishes and values. It is important to carefully think through these instructions and make them as clear as possible.

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Differences between a living will and a last will

The biggest difference between these two documents is that a last will doesn’t go into effect until the will writer has died and a living will takes effect while they are still living. However, there are some additional differences. Living wills only pertain to medical treatments and end-of-life care decisions, such as whether extreme actions should be taken to prolong life. Last wills are financial in nature.

Does my parent need a living will or a will?

Both living wills and last wills can be extremely beneficial legal documents for anyone to create, regardless of age.
While thinking about the end of life can be emotionally taxing, documenting personal preferences may bring a sense of control and some peace of mind. Discussing these wishes as a family can help everyone get on the same page. Being prepared for when these documents must be used can minimize stress and uncertainty for the everyone involved.

How often should a will or a living will be updated?

Obviously, these documents should be updated when the writer’s preferences have changed. The general rule is to at least review them every three to five years, but there are also specific circumstances to keep in mind for each one.
Last wills
Last wills should always be updated after major life changes or events, including:
  • Marriage or divorce
  • The birth of a child
  • A significant change in income or assets
  • Moving states, as there may be different state laws regarding wills and assets
  • Selling or buying a home [03]

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Living wills
For living wills, updates should be made when one’s medical status has changed or when medicine has changed. These events include:
  • Advancements in medical technology
  • Changes in health care laws
  • Changes in health or diagnosis that will require surgery
  • Changes in ability to pay for medical care
  • Moving to a different state, where medical laws may differ [04]


  1. Bieber, Christy. (2023, May 11). Last Will and Testament: Everything You Need to Know. Forbes.

  2. Farm Bureau Financial Services. (2022, March 2). How Often Should I Update My Will?

Meet the Author
Chloe Clark

Chloe Clark is a copywriter for OurParents. She has an MFA in Creative Writing, with a background in education and publishing. She has over a decade’s experience in writing for print publications and websites.

Edited byKristin Carroll
Reviewed byDenise Lettau

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