What Is a Living Will?

Life is full of unexpected events, but preparing for them now can help bring you and your family peace of mind and help make difficult times a little less stressful. Creating a living will can help provide clarity about your healthcare wishes should you become terminally ill or permanently unconscious, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

A living will is a form of advance directive that can help your physicians, family, and friends understand your health care wishes if you’re unable to speak for yourself, says the NIH.

The NIH and FamilyDoctor.org say items commonly covered by a living will touch on whether you wish to accept or reject medical care. Some of these decisions may include:

  • Whether you approve the use of dialysis, breathing machines, or other life support mechanisms.
  • Whether you wish to be resuscitated via CPR or other means should you stop breathing or your heart stops.
  • Whether you wish to become an organ or tissue donor. Conversely, you may also wish to stipulate whether you wish to receive donor tissue or organs, including blood transfusions.
  • Whether you wish to have artificial nutrition withheld. Some patients may also wish to withhold food or water when in the final stages of a terminal illness.
  • Any other health care wishes not otherwise specified, such as withholding or allowing aggressive surgical or other medical interventions.

Though thinking about and preparing for end-of-life care decisions may be challenging, the National Cancer Institute suggests it is best to create a living will while you’re still healthy, if possible. Accidents or unexpected illness may strike suddenly, leaving even previously healthy, young people unable to communicate their wishes. Involving your family, friends, and physicians in your decision is important, too, as it makes them aware of your wishes and the existence of your living will should it eventually be needed.

A living will can cover a variety of health care-related wishes, but according to FamilyDoctor.org, they don't typically enable you to appoint another person to make health care decisions for you if you become unable to do so. That is usually covered under a separate advance directive called a Durable Power of Attorney.

Laws regarding living wills and other advance directives vary by state, but the National Palliative Care and Hospice Organization allows you to download state-specific living will forms and instructions. These forms can only be completed by individuals who are 18 or older, and in most cases, require a minimum of two witnesses, says the NPCHO and MD Anderson Cancer Center. Although a lawyer isn’t needed to complete a living will, they may be helpful if you have any questions about the document and its legal implications. Other organizations, such as Living With Dignity, offer succinct living will forms valid in many states. You may also create a living will yourself with a form provided by your doctor, using legal software, or by consulting a lawyer, says FamilyDoctor.org.

Once you’ve completed a living will, the NCI suggests you store it in a safe location where it may be readily accessed by a trusted family member. You should also provide a copy to your doctor or health care team, if possible. Finally, consider keeping a card in your wallet that describes the existence of your living will or other advance directives and describes their location. When it comes to the future of your health, this sort of preparation can help defend your wishes when you’re no longer able to speak for yourself.

Estate planning? An Allstate Agent can help make sure your family is taken care of financially.

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Published: June 2014

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