Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

I’ve had many discussions with clients about estate planning, living wills, and DNR documents. But the vital importance of estate planning only truly hits home when you’re the one who’s going through the situation with a loved one.

When my father, a widower, became ill, the experience underscored the importance of clear end-of-life planning. He was very sick in the hospital, which I was not made aware of until he had been there for three days. When I got there, there was no will to be found. I had seen my parents’ last will and testament after they prepared it. I knew it outlined certain items going to certain people in the family, and other typical will information. But now, most of us didn’t know where it was in this dire situation.

Subsequently, there was a huge falling out between the siblings in my family as items were disappearing from my parents’ home. Relationships were severed between two of my three brothers and I, over the need for control and greed. I’ve seen this same story play out time and again in many families.

Even in the cases where someone is young and healthy, death leaves loved ones with so much to handle. We’ve all seen GoFundMe campaigns pop up when someone passes away suddenly, especially at a young age—they don’t have life insurance and other important end-of-life plans in place. End-of-life planning isn’t always something we want to face but leaving the burden of decisions on bereaved loved ones is also unfair.

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I share my personal experience with you because I don’t want anyone to go through what I did when my father passed away. Even with my estate planning background, it just goes to show no matter how much you know about end-of-life planning, you can never be too prepared. I used to say that experiencing the death of a loved one makes people act out-of-character. I’ve since changed my mind to believe death and grief bring out a person’s true character!

Don’t be caught unprepared (or leave your loved ones in a difficult situation). Most people know you need life insurance, but you should also consider a living will and, in some cases, a DNR (do not resuscitate) order. Here, we’ll go over the difference between a living will and a DNR, when you need which item, and why they’re so important.

What is a Living Will?

It’s always smart to put advanced directives in place in case a situation arises where you can’t make your own medical decisions. This relieves the emotional burden on family members as they cope with your illness. There’s a lot of confusion out there when it comes to understanding the difference between a living will and a DNR (do not resuscitate) order. These are both documents for advanced medical directives, but they serve very different purposes.

A living will is a legal document that goes into effect if you become incapacitated. However, a living will isn’t permanent. You may change or revoke it any time before you become incapacitated. Your living will may appoint a family member or spouse with medical or health care power of attorney, meaning they will act in your proxy when it comes to health care decisions. You will also outline your preferences in the living will.

A living will explains what you want as far as your treatment following an accident or debilitating illness. If you become terminally ill or are in a vegetative state, you can’t express your desired care. Your living will captures and communicates your wishes. A living will also indicates the circumstances under which life-sustaining treatment (life support) should be terminated. If you want to avoid life-sustaining treatment when there’s little hope of recovery, then you need to create a living will.

Many of my clients say, “Oh, I don’t need a living will because I don’t have many assets.” While your assets are part of the living will, and are often incorporated within the document, they aren’t the most important part. Your treatment wishes are a much tougher area to navigate.

Many people, even within the same family, hold differing opinions or beliefs on life-sustaining treatment. Even a spouse may be surprised at their husband or wife’s preferences that differ from their own. Not only does this lead to a family fallout (especially during times of emotional turmoil), but it may result in your wishes not being carried out. Everyone needs a living will.

What’s Addressed in a Living Will?

A living will requires you to face challenging conversations and thoughts head-on. This is why some people are hesitant, but keep in mind, a living will is a gift to your loved ones. You should sit down and think about various care options you’d prefer if you want to extend your life at any cost or under specific circumstances. A living will allows you to decide if you want life-saving or life-prolonging options. It specifies your wishes if you’re in a state where you can’t verbalize them.

Most living wills get very specific. You’ll go over which treatments are okay and which aren’t. This document only goes into effect once you’re incapacitated. Should you recover, you will resume decision-making capacity.

The common medical areas addressed in a living will are:

  • Tube feeding
  • Dialysis
  • Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)
  • Mechanical Ventilation
  • Medication, including antibiotics and antiviral medications
  • Pain management
  • Organ and tissue donation (which may require temporary life-sustaining treatment)

When people are hospitalized and haven’t taken care of their living will, you hear of many upsetting scenarios. People end up lingering in a coma for years and years. Families are torn up by battles in court and legal arguments. Implementing a living will ensures the situation never escalates to that point.

For women, especially, a living will offers you control over your treatment wishes and preferences. Living wills are important for men, too. We’re all going to die someday. I’ve seen many people, particularly wives, ask their spouse who handles the finances if “everything’s taken care of” and go on assuming everything is fine. Then suddenly, they’re faced with a terrible job of cleaning up a financial mess and second-guessing their spouse’s wishes.

None of us can predict the future (I wish we could!) and you have no idea when an accident is going to happen, or what the result will be. A living will is part of smart financial planning for your future and it’s easy and inexpensive to set up.

If you’re working on getting financially organized, a living will is part of the process. I’ve created a financial organization checklist that shows exactly what you need to do and the steps you should take from the beginning of financial organization all the way through estate planning. When you add your email to get the list, you’ll become part of our Making Cents Count community and receive full access to our amazing financial resource library.

What is a DNR?

This brings us to the second item: a DNR (do not resuscitate) order. These are often what people think of when they hear the term living will, but a DNR is a different type of document. You may also hear references to a DNI (do not intubate).

If you have a DNR, it means if your heart stops, a medical professional won’t attempt to revive you. Similarly, if you have a DNI and you stop breathing, you won’t be intubated. A DNR/DNI goes into effect only when you’re unable to communicate your care. If you’re in a coma and experience a heart attack, a DNR will indicate to medical staff they shouldn’t take steps to perform lifesaving treatment.

I’ve found people who are facing terminal illnesses or chronic heart conditions may request a DNR. (For information on life insurance after a heart attack, please see my post here.) It’s often decided upon when the person is under palliative or hospice care, or when they’re facing a chronic condition with little hope of recovery.

A DNR order is a very personal decision. It’s a fine line and a personal choice for everyone.

The Differences Between a Living Will and a DNR

The true difference between a living will and a DNR is that everyone benefits from having a living will and should consider putting one in place. A DNR/DNI is typically created only for the elderly or gravely ill—those who don’t want to prolong their life due to a chronic condition or issue.

A living will (and in some cases, a DNR) cover the bare minimum of end-of-life planning. However, you should still meet with a reputable attorney who specializes in estate planning to help you navigate the nuances of a will and testament and/or trust catered specifically to your needs and situation.

The best way to find a great estate planner is to ask around. Friends and family will often know someone in your local area to work with. You can also search online. Keep in mind, an estate planning attorney is different than a trial lawyer and other types of legal counsel. You’ll need to find someone who specializes in end-of-life planning, living wills, and trusts.

One piece of advice I always offer to friends and clients is that whenever you put end-of-life plans in place (whether it’s a living will, life insurance policy, DNR, or something else), confide in a close relative or trusted friend. Give them a copy of your document and ask them to put it away for safekeeping.

Similarly, you may wish to offer the same service to your parents, friends, or family members. Offer to keep a copy of their important documents for them. Should the worst happen, someone will know exactly where the documents are to carry out their wishes.

Don’t wait until you’re facing an illness or injury. It’s never too early to start estate planning and get your end-of-life documents in place. Even if you’re young and healthy, it’s still a smart idea to carry life insurance (which is a wise investment) and a living will. Rest easy knowing, should the worst-case scenario play out, your family members will take comfort in a clear, easy-to-follow plan.

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