Many people confuse the terms will and living will. While both these documents play important roles in estate planning, they have different purposes.

Review the key differences between a will and a living will to learn how each affects a person’s estate.

What is a will?

The common term will is actually short for “last will and testament.” This legal document indicates how the person wants to distribute estate property after his or her death. It can also establish a guardian for the person’s minor children. When a person dies, his or her personal representative files the will with the probate court to start the process of executing the estate.

How does a living will work?

Unlike a will, which takes effect when the person dies, a living will establishes wishes for medical care while the person is alive. With a living will, an individual can dictate the type of health interventions he or she wants.

This legal document takes effect when the person becomes incapacitated and cannot make independent medical decisions. In South Carolina, the living will takes effect when either:

  • Two physicians certify that a person is terminally ill and will not recovery
  • The person has been unconscious for at least 90 days

South Carolina also allows individuals to establish a health care proxy. This trusted person can make medical choices on his or her behalf in the case of incapacity. However, this decision requires a separate legal document called the health care power of attorney.

A comprehensive estate plan should include both a will and a living will. However, the exact contents of these documents vary by individual.