Thinking about your end-of-life health care decisions can be difficult. Life-sustaining measures like life support and feeding tubes are personal choices that you will not be able to make if you are unconscious or unable to communicate.
If you want to ensure that your health care wishes are followed, you should create a living will.
What Is a Living Will?
A living will, also known as an advance directive, is a legal document that allows you to tell doctors and medical professionals what kind of treatment you want if you are dying or in a permanent coma. A doctor will not refer to your living will unless you cannot communicate because of your medical condition. If you are conscious and able to express your wishes, medical providers will listen to you instead of your living will.
A living will is not a last will and testament. A last will and testament dictates what should happen to your assets and who will be the guardian of your children after you die.
You do not need an attorney to make a living will, but you should take the following steps before creating one.
Take Some Time To Think About Want You Want
Some people want doctors to do everything they can to keep them alive. Others want no extraordinary measures if they will have a low quality of life.
Before you start making a living will, you should think hard about what you want at the end of your life. If you are unsure, speaking with professionals who have experience with end-of-life decisions, such as a doctor or estate planning attorney, can help you decide what you should include in your living will.
Some questions to ask yourself are:
- Do I want to be resuscitated if my heart or breathing stops, or do I want a do not resuscitate (DNR) order?
- Do I want palliative care (medication and other steps to increase comfort and reduce pain)?
- Do I want to be on a ventilator to help me breathe?
- Do I want a feeding tube if I am unconscious and unable to feed myself?
- What is the minimum quality of life that I would want doctors to keep me alive for?
- How will my decisions affect my loved ones emotionally and financially?
- Do I want to donate my organs?
Even if you do not have strong preferences, you should think about setting out your wishes in advance in case your health deteriorates to the point where you cannot communicate. If you do not have a living will, doctors will rely on your closest family members to make decisions for you.
Having a living will relieves pressure on your loved ones to make these tough choices for you. It also can prevent family members from fighting in court about your health care.
Know the Difference Between a Living Will and a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care
A durable power of attorney for health care is also a legal document for medical decisions. But, instead of saying what medical care you want, you name a person to make medical decisions for you when you are unable to make them yourself. This person is known as a health care agent, attorney-in-fact, or health care proxy.
It is wise to have both a living will and a durable power of attorney for health care. Living wills are designed for end-of-life care. A durable power of attorney covers times when you are unconscious but not facing imminent death or permanent incapacitation. It also can be used for end-of-life situations your living will does not mention.
It is important to name a trusted family member or friend as your health care agent and have one or two backups if your first choice is unavailable.
Write Your Living Will
Most states have living will forms available online. Hospitals and physicians usually have forms for their patients. You can also use one of the downloadable forms we offer.
Living wills have different names in different states, and most contain the words “advance directive," “declaration," or “health care." In some states, the living will and durable power of attorney for health care are contained in the same document.
Most living will forms are easy to fill out. They have checkboxes as well as blank spaces to write in your specific wishes. Think of the questions you asked yourself about your end-of-life wishes and make sure you cover each one of them in your living will.
State laws and forms can change, so be careful not to use an old form. If you are not using an attorney to draft your living will, you must ensure that your living will complies with current laws in your state.
Depending on your state's law, you may need to have your living will notarized and have witnesses sign it. Ensure that it is signed properly so health care providers can legally rely on it.
Talk To Your Family Members and Health Care Agent
You do not want your living will or durable power of attorney for health care to be a surprise to your loved ones. Let them know you have one and what your wishes are.
You do not have to go into every detail of your living will when speaking with your family, but it is a good idea to let them know what you feel is an acceptable quality of life. They must understand what you want and know that your living will expresses your desires.
You should have a conversation with your health care agent about the types of treatment you would or would not want if something is not clearly covered by your living will. No one can foresee every possible medical condition, so it is fine to give your health care agent a general idea about your wishes.
Make Sure the Right People Have a Copy of Your Living Will
You cannot tell your doctors and loved ones where your living will is if you are unconscious. When you finish your living will, give a copy to your primary physician, your health care agent, and any family or friends you want to have a copy. If you are going to have surgery or will be admitted to a hospital or health care facility, give a copy to those doctors and facilities.
Review, Revoke, or Revise Your Living Will When Needed
Situations change, and people grow. A living will created when you were 25 years old might not express your health care wishes when you are 55 years old or 85 years old. You may have married and had children or grandchildren. You may have developed a complicated health problem.
If you think you need a new living will, review your current one. You can revoke it and write a new one if it no longer meets your needs. When revoking a living will without creating a new one, always do so in writing.
Destroying an old living will without making a new one or creating a written revocation could create confusion if someone still has a copy of your old living will. If you revoke or rewrite your living will, tell the people who have copies of your old living will and provide them with a copy of the new living will or written revocation.
Consider Consulting With an Attorney
Living will forms can be simple to fill out, but they also can make it easy to overlook important considerations. Everyone is different, and one-size-fits-all forms may not cover everything you need.
If you do not hire an attorney to draft your living will, an attorney's review can help give you the peace of mind that your living will complies with state law and your wishes. An experienced estate planning attorney in your state can help you with your living will, durable power of attorney for health care, and any other estate planning needs.