A living will is a type of legal document within your estate planning documents. It allows a person to explain their medical treatment and end-of-life care decisions.
Having these health care decisions spelled out keeps the decision-making rights in your hands. It will also provide family members and health care personnel with clear medical care instructions. You can nominate someone to serve as a health care proxy to learn about, and follow, your medical directives.
In general, if a living will meets your state's legal requirements, its instructions are legally valid and binding. This section gives an overview of living wills and other health care directives. It also provides state-specific resources related to these types of estate plans.
Note: Your state may refer to this document as a health care directive, living will, or other similar names. This document may be different than a medical power of attorney in your state.
Why You Should Make a Living Will
You can express all medical decisions in a living will. By creating a living will or a similar health care directive, you can accomplish two critical goals:
If you create a living will, you reduce the likelihood of emotional and ugly disputes over your medical and end-of-life care. Taking your health care wishes into your own hands can provide peace of mind for your family if you are facing a terminal illness or serious medical condition.
Unfortunately, the desire to avoid dealing with an awkward and uncomfortable subject leads many people to forego creating living wills. The most common reason given for not making a health care directive is that the subject of mental incapacity and end-of-life care was difficult to approach. It can also be hard to consider when the power of attorney is for a child.
What Is a Living Will: Personal Medical Decisions
The purpose of a living will is to ensure that a person's medical care and treatment wishes are honored should they become mentally incapacitated.
Common decisions to make for future health care providers include:
- Deciding if you want to receive life support
- Choosing a do not resuscitate (DNR) order or approving resuscitation efforts
- Determining specifics of organ donation
- Determining different kinds of treatment such as feeding tubes, medical procedures, or pain management methods
- Deciding on blood transfusions, dialysis, or use of a respirator
- Choosing administration of life-sustaining drugs and intravenous fluids
These decisions should be carefully considered. Many people consult with family members and friends before making their final decisions.
If you begin thinking about your living will early on, you'll give yourself time to plan carefully and consult with your loved ones. Keep in mind that finances and property are handled in different estate planning documents, such as a will.
How It Works: State Laws for Health Care Directives
Every state has some form of health care directive for residents to express medical care preferences and instructions. Keep in mind that states may use different terms and have different requirements and procedures.
For example, one state might use the term "living will," while another state uses the term "advance health care directive." Also, one state may require medical personnel to obey living will instructions, while another state merely provides medical personnel with legal immunity if they choose to obey will instructions.
If you have questions about your state's health care directive laws, it's smart to speak with an attorney.
Can I DIY a Living Will or Health Care Directive?
In some cases you can create your own living will via online forms. You can select state-specific forms to ensure you strictly follow your state's requirements. If you need legal advice there is always the option to have an attorney review your forms, or help you along the process. Not sure what to expect? You can learn more about what a sample form looks like and the kinds of questions you will answer.
Living Wills: How an Attorney Can Help
An attorney can answer any questions you have about health care directives. They can help you create a living will that clearly states your end-of-life and other medical decisions.
You can search and consult with an experienced estate planning attorney in your area — often for free for the first consultation.