Whether you are young or old, sometime during your life you could become disabled or incapacitated in a way that prevents you from communicating. If this happens to you, you may be unable to tell your health care provider or family your preferences regarding various types of medical treatment, such as blood transfusions, pain-relieving drugs, drugs to treat a disease or illness, diagnostic tests, surgery, life support or life sustaining medical care such as respirators, hydration, and intravenous nutrition, and whether you wish to be revived by medical procedures such as CPR.
If you are concerned about the huge financial burden that might be placed on your family if you are on life support for an extended period of time, you may want to use a living will to put limitations on the amount of time you wish to be kept alive by artificial means. See also right to die. Perhaps you want to ensure that every possible method is available to alleviate your pain. These types of wishes can be written in advance directives. For the forms you need to make advance directives, go to
estate planning software.
Whether there are some types of care you definitely do not want or want every possible treatment available, it is important to create legally enforceable documents that outline your medical preferences and empower an agent or surrogate you trust to make health care decisions for you in the event of incapacity.
Creating health care directives does not prevent you from making your own medical decisions and communicating your health care preferences while you are still conscious and otherwise able to communicate. These documents are generally written to be effective only upon your subsequent incapacity or disability, such as from a coma or Alzheimer’s disease. See dementia and wills.
When to Update Your Living Will
You should review and update your health care directives anytime you have a major life change such as marriage or divorce, changes in your health condition, move to another state or country, and changes in your relationship with your agent. Also, review your health care directives every few years and determine if your state has adopted revised living will forms. Provided you are of sound mind, you can change your health care directives at any time by properly executing new ones in accordance with state laws. If you update your health care directives, destroy the old versions and keep the original in a location where your agent for health care can find it. You may also want to provide copies of your new living will to your health care providers, hospital, HMO or insurance plan representative, and family members. Keep a record of the people and institutions that received a copy of your health care directives so you can provide them an updated version should you change your directives in the future. You may also want to write a Letter of Instruction.
What is a Living Will?
A living will is a written document that states the type of medical care you do or do not want to receive if you become incapacitated. A living will is sometimes also referred to as an advance health care directive or medical directive. A living will only applies to medical decisions and health care matters. It does not affect the disposition of your property and should not be confused with other estate planning documents, such as a will or living trust.
What is a Health Care Power of Attorney?
A durable power of attorney for health care is a document that appoints an individual as your agent or attorney in fact to make health care decisions if you cannot due to incapacity or disability, as determined by your doctor.
When you are incapacitated, questions may arise regarding your medical treatment that could not be foreseen when you prepared your living will forms or advance directives. When you appoint an agent in a durable power of attorney for health care, you can typically authorize your agent to do the following: 1. Make decisions regarding any matter not addressed in your health care directives 2. Obtain medical treatment for you, including hiring physicians 3. Serve as your representative if legal action is required to enforce your health care directives on matters such as whether to withdraw life support 4. Obtain and review your medical records 5. Be in your hospital room with you even when such person might otherwise be restricted from visiting you under hospital policies For more details, go to health care POA.
When selecting an agent or health care proxy, choose someone you trust to honor your wishes. Discuss your preferences on medical decisions with your agent in advance. Choose an agent that will be available should the need arise. You should not name your physician. In fact, most state laws prohibit you from naming your doctor as your health care agent.
A durable power of attorney for health care does not allow your agent to handle your financial affairs, such as depositing checks, paying bills, and managing your assets. If you want an agent appointed to handle your financial affairs in the event of disability, make a durable power of attorney for finances. See financial decisions.
Executing Your Health Care Directives
To be enforceable, your health care directives must be executed in accordance with state laws. In most states, advance directives must be signed in front of a notary, but some states also require you sign them in the presence of witnesses. Check your state law requirements before signing the forms. To find living will requirements for your state, go to state laws.
Using Statutory Living Wills
Most states have developed state health care directive form documents that can be used to make a living will and health care POA. Some states combine these medical decision documents into one form. If you are using one of these state forms, rather than having an attorney prepare one for you, you can usually write additional information on the form regarding your preferences if you find something you want to address that is not covered on the statutory form. To find living will and health care power of attorney forms for your state, see medical decision laws.
Do Not Resuscitate Orders or DNR's
A Do Not Resuscitate Order or DNR is a separate legal document that is different than a living will or health care directive. If you have a terminal illness or do not want to receive CPR for other reasons, you may wish to execute a DNR in addition to a living will. If you execute a living will or health care directives, make sure they are consistent with any Do Not Resuscitate Order you have. See DNR Orders.
Preferences Regarding Organ Donation
If you have questions about becoming an organ donor or how to document your preferences, see Organ Donation.