A living will is a legal document that details a person’s preferences regarding their medical treatment in the event they are unable to make decisions for themselves. Living wills are an important component of the end of life planning process, especially for people who are concerned about their health care options if they become incapacitated.
Anyone over the age of 18 can create a living will as long as they are of sound mind. It doesn’t matter if you are young or old or rich or poor – a living will can provide peace of mind for you and your family during uncertain times. Nobody expects to be in a situation where they cannot make informed decisions about their health care, but if it does happen, it helps to have specific instructions for physicians and other health providers to follow. It also eases the stress level on your family if they know you have written instructions.
A living will should not be confused with a traditional will. A will (also known as a last will and testament) is a legally binding document that describes how an individual’s assets and property should be distributed upon their death. An easy way to think about it is a will documents your wishes about what to do with your personal property, while a living will details your wishes about what to do with your personal health.
Living Will vs. Advance Directives
There are different kinds of healthcare forms that come up when discussing living wills, e.g., advance directives, power of attorney, etc. This can make it confusing to determine which form works best for your own situation. A living will is actually a type of advance directive: an advance directive is an umbrella term for legal documents that deal with a individual’s personal instructions regarding health care if they become incapacitated.
A durable power of attorney for health care is another type of advance directive that gives a chosen individual (an “agent”) the right to represent or act on behalf of another person (the “principal”) in making decisions about the principal’s medical treatment. Some people create both a living will and a healthcare power of attorney to make sure their personal wishes are clearly recorded and understood.
Without a living will or an advance directive, health providers typically ask the family for guidance in providing medical treatment. This can cause conflict if your family’s plans for your health care differ from your own preferences. It can also lead to disagreements among family members who suggest opposing treatments and care.
Creating a Living Will
Before you start to write a living will, keep in mind that each state maintains different laws and statutes concerning the authority these documents, so make sure you consult with a lawyer and do your research. In addition, a living will needs to have a valid signature in order to be considered active, and some states require one or more witnesses to sign the document or require the form to be notarized.
Here are a couple of things you should consider when creating a living will:
How Do You Want to Be Treated?
Think about what kind of lifesaving medical treatment you would want if you were seriously injured or terminally ill. For example, would you want first responders to provide CPR? Or if you were in a coma, would you be okay with an IV feeding tube or mechanical ventilation to help you breathe? What about pain management or organ donation? Decisions about medical care that extends your life can be complicated, and should be clearly addressed in a living will.
Who Should Make Decisions for You?
If you decide to name someone to act as your agent in making medical decisions on your behalf, make sure the person is trustworthy, knowledgeable, and understands your personal values with respect to health care. It’s not easy choosing a healthcare agent – the person should be reliable and aware, and be able to advocate for you if faced with strong opinions from medical providers and/or family members. You should also select a backup healthcare agent in case your first choice is unable to take on the role.
Advance Planning Makes Sense
Writing a living will may seem like a challenging task, but it makes sense to get it done sooner rather than later. The same thing applies to advance planning for funeral or cremation arrangements – as the saying goes, “Better to have and not need, than to need and not have.”