A Guide to Differences Between Wills and Living Wills

By | August 1, 2011

Let’s be honest: when it comes to estate planning, a lot of people prefer the bliss of ignorance to the bliss of wisdom. Wills, to them, are complicated things, reminders of our own mortality and therefore something to be put off into the future. And when you introduce the concept of a Living Will, the complications make the prospect of drafting these documents seem all the more daunting.

So what’s the solution?

Simple: learn a little bit about Wills and Living Wills. As it turns out, you might be intrigued by the prospect of using your legal powers in this fashion. Many people actually find out that the more they learn about estate planning, the more the process seems, well, fun. At the very least, it’s a process that can make you feel more empowered and less worried about the future.

So let’s kick-start your interest in estate planning by learning the difference between two of the most important documents you’ll ever sign: the Will and the Living Will.

Only the Names are Similar

One mistake people make in regards to Wills and Living Wills is assuming that because the two sound like similar documents, they must deal with very similar things. And while both a Will and Living Will deal with important questions surrounding your health and even your passing, the two documents actually address two very different aspects of your last wishes and ultimate legacy.

First, it’s the Will that deals with your estate and, therefore, your property. When you decide where you want your money to go when you die, you put that information in a Will. It’s this document that will tally all of your properties. It will also describe what’s to be done with the property after you’re gone, going so far as to leave instructions for loved ones.

The Living Will, however, does not deal with property. It deals with important decisions that have to be made in your absence, including medical and health decisions.  In this case, however, it’s important to remember that “absence” doesn’t necessarily refer to you having passed away. It may refer to any event in which you’ve been incapacitated and you are unable to communicate which decisions you want to be made.

Answering the Questions Each Document Poses

There is another similarity between these two documents: they will both require that you answer some pretty tough questions. The questions, however, will be different.

In a Will, you might ask yourself:

  • What do I want to happen to my house after I die?
  • Who will receive the money I leave behind?
  • What do I want to happen to my property after I pass away?
  • How can I leave more money behind to my family?

In a Living Will, your questions will look more like this:

  • Do I want to authorize a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order for when I am incapacitated?
  • Do I want to be on life support under certain conditions?
  • What should my doctor know if I am incapacitated?

Obviously, both sets of questions carry heavy implications, which is why it’s so important to start answering them as early as possible – and not leave the creation of these documents to the last minute.

Should You Do Both Documents at Once?

In some cases, you may feel that it’s a good idea to handle all of your estate planning issues in one fell swoop, such as during a long meeting with an attorney. But the larger your estate, the more likely it will be that there are questions you’ll have that can’t be answered in a single meeting.

Provided you use an attorney and are careful but also proactive with your Living Will and Will, there is generally no wrong way to go about drafting either of these documents. The attorney will be able to give you the insights you need to craft a solid estate plan while bringing any potential problems to your attention. But the larger your estate, the more personal decisions there will be for you to make.

For example, if you have an estate that’s worth more than the minimum estate value that must pay the estate tax, then you’ll have to enter more serious estate planning. How can you move money around so that your loved ones receive as much money as possible?

Each situation will be different, but there are two important rules to remember: work with a trustworthy, quality attorney – and make sure that you take action rather than put action off into the future. The peace of mind you receive as a result of having these documents drafted according to your wishes will be well worth the effort.

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