Each of the fifty states has some law regarding living wills. The terms “health care directive” and “living will” are sometimes used interchangeably. The correct legal term may depend on your state.
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A living will is a legal document that lets patients make decisions about their medical care before the need for treatment arises. This is done through the use of advance directives. An example is choosing if you want to be resuscitated or a “do not resuscitate” order (DNR).
Forms Vary By State Law
The great majority of states allow for patients to draft living wills. These forms will spell out the type and duration of medical care that you wish to receive.
If you are able to speak and make your own choices, the form does not apply. It is only used if you are unable to communicate those wishes on your own.
Although the law in each state will vary as to what can be included in a living will, they follow a general template.
What You’ll Find In a Living Will Document
The following examples can provide a general overview of what a living will may look like. It also gives an overview of what information may be included.
Of course, specific needs or varying state laws could change what the document includes. You should check the law in your jurisdiction, have an attorney review your advance directives, or use an online DIY process to walk you through the document.
It is typical to find these sections:
- Introduction with your personal information
- Declaration of your “sound mind”
- Declaration of your informed opinions on medical choices
- Your legal right to refuse medical care and treatment
- A declaration that medical care professionals must follow the wishes outlined in the document
- A statement that you will not hold anyone liable (try to sue them) for following your wishes
- Specific directions about your medical wishes
A living will is not a health care power of attorney. Your living will is a legal document that doctors and family need to follow. A health care power of attorney is a document and an actual person you have selected to follow your wishes and your legal documents. It adds an extra layer of power to ensure your health care decisions are followed.
Medical Choices and Directions
The document will have a large section on your medical choices. These will typically include:
- Withholding or withdrawing life-sustaining medical care
- Choices about treatment that only prolongs the process of dying
- Choices if you are in an incurable or irreversible mental or physical condition
- Choices if you have no reasonable medical expectation of recovery
- Limiting treatment to anything designed to keep you comfortable
- Choices about pain medications and pain relief
- Lists of specific medical care you do not want
- Lists of specific medical care you do want
- If you have x conditions you want x treatments
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It is important that your document contains some basic information. This allows attorneys, health care agents, personal representatives, and officials in the state to follow your wishes.
This section will include:
- The date you created the document
- Witness or notary signatures
- Witness statements that they are legal adults
- Witness statement that you are of “sound mind” and signed in their presence
- There was no pressure (called “undue influence),” duress, or fraud in signing this document
Customizing Your Living Will
It is common for much of your document to be customized to you. This can include checking boxes, filling in the blanks, or writing out specific choices. Paragraphs are often tailored to suit your own desires.
For example, you could redraft a paragraph to state that you would like to have life-sustaining treatments for “x” number of days or weeks. You might also say if no progress is made and there is no reasonable hope of recovery, you would like to have the life-sustaining treatments withdrawn.
Another common example is writing out the situations where you don’t wish to receive pain medications.
Every living will should have a section of “declarations.” This allows you to list all specific types of treatment you wish to/not to receive.
If you do not have strong feelings about any particular type of treatment, you do not need to include this paragraph in your own living will. However, if you do have strong preferences, this is the place to list them.
Common examples include:
- Artificial feedings
- Hydration and fluids
- Blood transfusions
- Cardiac resuscitation
- Intravenous lines
- Invasive tests
- Respiratory therapy
- Mechanical respiratory assistance
Asking For Unusual Medical Wishes
Your body and medical choices are yours alone. You can ask for whatever medical wishes you want as long as they comply with your state laws.
For example: for many people, taking away food and water from a dying person seems especially cruel. They may feel as though the person is starving or dehydrating to death.
However, you have a right to make your specific wishes known on the subject. It is advisable, however, to be particularly clear on those issues so that there is no room for your loved ones to debate.
In addition, they will likely feel less burdened by guilt if they are certain they are following your specific wishes not to be artificially fed or hydrated.
Your living will document will have paragraphs that allow you to clearly state what care and treatment you would like to receive. In addition, if you have specific instructions for other types of care, you may wish to include them.
“If This Medical Condition Happens… Then I Want This Treatment”
Your living will allows you to essentially “change” your wishes should you also have another medical condition. Again, this only applies when you become incapacitated or incompetent and can’t speak to the doctors yourself.
Popular examples include:
- At-home or hospice care ONLY as the end approaches
- Feelings about religious practices or customs ONLY at a terminal stage (for instance, if you wish for a certain clergy member to be called and be present)
- Not having life-sustaining treatment because you are pregnant
- Being kept alive until the baby can be safely delivered
- Having life-sustaining treatments withdrawn if there has been no recovery or reasonable progress for x amount of days
Living Wills: Giving Directions to Your Attending Physician
Sometimes a living will is called a “directive to physicians.” It is exactly what has been described in this article but may contain the information of your specific physician.
The document will explain when you don’t want to be artificially prolonged under the circumstances written in the document. It typically asks for one or two doctors to determine your condition. Your health care provider can pick the other doctor to discuss your medical treatment, or you can name the other doctor.
For example, if you have an incurable condition caused by injury, disease, or illness. You may want it certified to be a terminal condition by two physicians.
You may also want multiple doctors to determine the types of treatment. Where life-sustaining procedures would serve only to artificially prolong the moment of your death, you may want to say no. You can decide if and when you want to die naturally.
Keeping Your Living Will Accurate
It is important to keep your wishes updated in this legal document. It is only used if you can’t think, speak or give directions regarding life-sustaining procedures
Your health care directive is essential to show your intentions. It forced your wishes to be honored by family members and physicians. In short, it is the final expression of your legal right to refuse medical or surgical treatment and accept the consequences of this refusal.
Various conditions may change how you think about your medical choices. Being pregnant or facing a terminal illness are two such examples. You can declare that if these conditions happen, the living will has no power or effect during the course of pregnancy.
You will also want to choose a start and end date. You may want to say the directive has no effect x years from the date you created it. Be sure to update it as life events happen or medical needs change.
Need Help Drafting a Living Will? An Attorney Can Help
A living will, which technically is not even a “will,” is an important, legally binding document that gives you more control over your health care and end-of-life decisions.
Therefore, you want to make sure you write the most appropriate living will for your needs. Get started today for some reassurance by calling a local estate planning attorney or use an online DIY process.