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What is a living will, and does everyone need one?

When an estate plan is executed in California, it is helpful to take time to think about the ultimate goals involved. There are no requirements as to which documents an estate owner must use. The system is designed so that each person can customize a plan to fit individual needs. A particular document that is commonly used for estate planning is a “living will.” 

When people think of wills, they typically think of a document known as a last will and testament. It takes effect upon a person’s death. A living will and a last will and testament are two separate documents that serve specific yet different needs. It is possible to have an estate plan that includes both documents.  


It is important to understand what a living will is for someone to determine if it should be included in the estate planning process. There are several goals that can be accomplished with a living will: 

  • Lists types of medical treatments or end-of-life care that a person wants or does not want 
  • Grants another person power of attorney to make health care decisions on the estate owner’s behalf 
  • Issues a DNR advanced directive, which stands for: Do Not Resuscitate 
  • Includes a POLST (in some states, including California), which means “Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment.” 

A living will may or may not include all of these things. It is often referred to as an “advanced directive” because it is a means for a person to make known his or her wishes ahead of time, in case he or she becomes incapacitated or is receiving end-of-life care.  


Yes, a living will may be adapted or updated, providing that the person signing the document is of sound mind and not under duress. It is helpful to discuss one’s goals with an estate planning attorney, who can then make recommendations as to which documents are best suited to help achieve the plan. 

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