Understanding Living Wills

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A living will is a legal document providing instructions on what to do when an individual cannot communicate decisions regarding their own medical care. Typically, it’s only enacted when an individual still alive is facing a life-threatening condition and unable to convey their wishes. This legal document helps family members and medical teams determine whether to continue or stop certain life-sustaining treatments.  

What Should Information Be Included in a Living Will?  

A living will should include the types of medical assistance you want to receive. Think of it as writing down your decisions in advance. It’s a way of speaking for yourself if you cannot do so verbally. 

The basic details of a living will include:  

  • Your legal name or an alias and current date.  
  • A statement that you are of sound mind and body. 
  • The name of your healthcare proxy (the one who executes your wishes as outlined in this document).  
  • The signature of two witnesses who will attest that you were lucid and competent during the making of your living will. 
  • Your legal signature. 

It can sometimes be difficult to anticipate all medical circumstances you might want to address, but here are some guidelines about what you may want to consider addressing in your living will. 

  • Breathing assistance. If you can no longer breathe independently, you’ll have to specify whether you want a breathing tube or ventilator. Also, you may want to indicate how long you’re willing to receive this support.  
  • Feeding assistance. If you cannot feed yourself, note whether you’re willing to be fed intravenously or through a tube and for how long.  
  • Medications and treatment. Specify what kind of pain management or treatment you may want or not want. Discussing specific questions regarding medications and procedures with a physician may be a good idea.  
  • Palliative care. When treatments aren’t working, decide what is appropriate regarding comfort care.  
  • Organ donation. You can state this wish in your living will if you want to donate your organs. Those who want to contribute their body to scientific research can indicate this preference too.  
  • Religious/philosophical preferences. You can state the beliefs that may impact medical decisions.  

How Do You Make a Living Will? 

An attorney can draft a living will, or you can do it yourself. If you decide to prepare it yourself, be aware that each state has requirements for a valid living will. Hospitals, nursing homes, and hospice facilities sometimes have a living will form on their websites.  

Most states will require at least two witnesses and your legal signature to consider a living will valid. Also, some states require that the document be notarized. Once you’ve your wishes, store this document in a safe, accessible place and inform a trusted person of this location. You could also forward a digital copy to your doctor.  

Who Needs a Living Will?  

Everyone should consider drafting a living will. Life often brings unexpected challenges, and if you become incapacitated, a living will can remove the guesswork surrounding your medical preferences. Creating a living will while you’re healthy and in a lucid state of mind allows you to look at each option objectively and decide whether you want—or do not want—a particular medical treatment.  

Those who are medically compromised or facing a terminal illness should give extra consideration in devising a living will. If you’re undergoing surgery, executing a living will may also be a good idea. This document may help loved ones and your medical team make informed decisions about your healthcare.  

What Is the Difference Between a Last Will and a Living Will?  

A last will and testament and a living will are completely different legal documents that address separate issues and concerns.  

A last will and testament is a written document that provides instructions on distributing your assets after death. It also provides instructions for how to disperse your money and belongings among your heirs after your passing. This legal document will also name an executor for your estate and list guardians for children.  

Unlike a last will and testament, a living will is a document that determines what medical care you want if you become incapacitated or unable to convey your wishes. It is a legal document that is used while you’re alive.  

How Is a Living Will Different From an Advanced Directive? 

There is some confusion about the difference between an advanced directive and a living will. An advanced directive is a set of legal documents with instructions regarding your healthcare should you become incapacitated. A living will is a type of advanced directive.  

Another type of advanced directive is a medical power of attorney, which may be referred to as a healthcare proxy. This legal document appoints an individual to take care of healthcare decisions should you be incapacitated and unable to communicate.  

Another advanced directive is a psychiatric advance directive that provides instructions on mental health treatment should you be unable to express your wishes. These are currently valid in 25 states.  

It’s never easy to think about such difficult topics, but your instructions could prove to be invaluable to your loved ones, so they’ll know they are abiding by your wishes

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