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What is the difference between a will and a living will?

Wills and living wills are two estate planning documents that people often get confused. Because their names are so similar, it is easy to understand why this occurs. However, the two documents have very different purposes.

A will affects how assets will be distributed

Most people have a general idea of what a will does, since this document is often featured in books, movies and other forms of entertainment. The main purpose of a will is to allow you to document you wishes for what you want to happen after you pass away. Specifically, it allows you to control who your assets should go to after you die. If you do not create a will, Massachusetts’s intestate succession laws will dictate who will receive your assets.

Many people do not believe they need to bother creating a will until they are near death. However, this is inaccurate for a few different reasons. One reason is because a will can address more than the distribution of your assets. You can also use it to select a guardian for your minor children in case something unexpected should cause both you and their other parent to pass away.

It may also be advantageous to create a will sooner rather than later because you must be of sound mind when you create it, and there is no way to know for sure when will be your time to go. Life can be unpredictable, so it is usually prudent to put your desired plans in place long before you ever expect you will need them.

A living will impacts the medical treatment you receive

Another way to protect your wishes from the unexpected is to create a living will, and like a will, it is often prudent to create a living will sooner rather than later. However, a living will is not a variation of a will.

A living will, also called an advance health care directive, allows you to document what you want to happen if you are alive but unable to communicate your wishes. This could happen if you fall into a coma, experience a cardiac arrest or are going through the advanced stages of cancer, among other scenarios.

You can detail what treatment you may or may not want to receive in various situations. This way, medical professionals and family members will know and follow your wishes if one of those situations occurs. By documenting your wishes, you can prevent your family members from trying to guess what you would have wanted. Trying to guess your wishes can cause significant personal stress but can also cause family infighting and delayed action.

Because a will and a living will each address different concerns, thorough estate plans often include both documents. However, the documents you choose to include in your estate plan is a personal choice that should be based on your specific needs and situation.

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