Who needs a living will?

I don’t know where the term living will comes from, in that when you initially hear the words spoken, you think it’s a document that is alive and adapts and relates to your wishes at death. But that’s not what it actually does. A living will actually spells out your wishes for your healthcare in certain situations, such as when you need life support to stay alive, how to handle pain management in the event of a massive injury, and other situations in which you might not be able to effectively advocate for yourself because you are incapacitated in some way. So a living will, more than anything else, is a written roadmap for how you want your loved ones and doctors to handle certain medical situations that come up so they don’t have to guess or use their own wishes as guidelines.

So now that you have a basic understanding of what a living will is, it’s time to answer the question of who needs a living will.

It’s really unlikely that you are going to end up in a critical medical situation in your 20s or 30s. Most people, myself included, simply don’t face life-or-death situations at that age. It’s not normal. But it does happen. I’ve had friends who have had heart attacks at those ages, faced challenging cancer treatments at those ages, and been in serious, life-threatening car accidents at those ages. Unlikely does not mean impossible. And so when we try to deal with uncertainty, whether in investing or anything else, the question is whether we can measure that uncertainty, whether we can create a solution to reduce the uncertainty, and whether we can implement that solution in a cost-effective manner.

In this case, the uncertainty we are faced with is whether something traumatic is going to occur to your body that prevents you from making your own decisions about certain types of care. And unfortunately, this is a binary situation – you either can or can’t make your own decisions at a certain point in time. And once you can’t, it’s too late to try to dictate what you want. A healthcare proxy and HIPAA release can give someone the ability to access your medical information and make decisions, but what should those decisions be? The living will provides a blueprint ahead of time.

We know that the uncertainty we are dealing with here is binary and needs to be addressed before it becomes an issue. We know that the living will is the tool to reduce the impact of that uncertainty by providing a path for your family and friends to care for you. So the real question relates to cost. And fortunately, a living will is typically a relatively basic document. Most licensed attorneys can produce one for you at a relatively low cost, likely in the hundreds of dollars, depending on the attorney you go with. So we are talking about taking a large number of questions out of the equation when it comes to your care, at a relatively minimal cost.

For anyone with a spouse or children, a living will is a must-have.

If you are in your 20s and 30s and aren’t married and don’t have children, you don’t need one, but at a relatively low cost, you probably should have one. It’s not a question of whether you are going to use it – you most likely won’t use it at those ages. But legal planning typically isn’t about preparing for a best-case scenario.

It’s about preparing for a worst-case scenario. In this case, the cost of that preparation is relatively minimal and it probably makes sense for you to have this planning in place at an early age because of the low cost and significant risk mitigation you get for that cost. So while you probably don’t need a living will until your 40s or 50s if you are looking at the actual risk, it likely makes sense to have one far sooner than that because the amount of risk you take off the table is so significant relative to the cost.