What is a Living Will?

Many people have heard of a will and know what its general purpose is, but what may be more mysterious is the Living Will. Creating a living will can help to give you and your loved ones some peace of mind, since it explains what kind of medical care you wish to get when you are unable to speak for yourself. Nearly everyone can make a living will, but they are most beneficial to those who are facing some sort of potential incapacity or for those who are strongly opinionated when it comes to the type of care that they will or will not receive.

The first thing you have to know is that a living will isn’t something you can use to leave property to your loved ones, name an executor, or name a guardian for any children. That kind of document is a traditional will, often called a last will and testament. A living will is also known as a health care declaration, and it is a document that you can use to describe the kind of health care you wish to get if you are incapacitated and cannot speak on your own. It normally goes hand-in-hand with a power of attorney for health care, in which you can name someone to make health care decisions in your stead. There are some states that combine these two documents into something, called an “advanced directive.”

So what do you put in the living will? Normally, you put your wishes regarding various types of care you do or do not wish to receive (such as whether or not to be put on a ventilator if needed). The state form you fill out will ask for things like:

  • Life-prolonging medical care:

Such treatments include: blood transfusions, CPR, diagnostic tests, dialyses, administration of drugs, use of a respirator, and surgery.

  • Food and water:

Some patients who are permanently unconscious can often live for a very long time if they are given intravenous food and water. There are those who want this care, while others do not.

  • Palliative Care:

This type of care is provided to help reduce pain for those who choose to forgo life-prolonging treatments.

Making these kinds of decisions isn’t easy, and a lot of people find that they don’t only consider what they want, but also what their loved ones might prefer. Oftentimes, there isn’t a clear right or wrong choice, so it can be difficult for certain family members to come to terms with your wishes (such as younger children). We also recommend that you communicate what your wishes are to your family members beforehand, so that there is no conflict or confusion down the line.

Something to note, though, is that a lawyer isn’t required in order to make a living will, but you can get one from a lawyer if you wish. Each state has their own requirements needed to make a living will, so if you do it on your own, make sure to find a form that meets the requirements of your state. You might be able to find such forms at places like local senior centers, hospitals, at your regular physician’s office, your state’s medical association, as well as The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.

Another option is to use will-making software such as Quicken WillMaker Plus. The software comes with a traditional will, durable power of attorney for health care, free access to NOLO’s online living trust, as well as a lot of other useful forms. After making your document, you have to sign it and have it witnessed or notarized or both. Requirements to make the form legal vary by state, so check into that before doing anything.

To finish, you might consider giving a copy of your living will to family members, your health care agent, your doctors, and your hospital or care facility. That way, if you get incapacitated, your document will tell your wishes for you, but it will only be effective if those that treat you are aware of it. So even though it might be hard to bring up these kinds of issues with loved ones or doctors, it’s best for them to know about your wishes as well as your living will.