What Living Will Is (And Why You Should Care)

Do you have a living will? Fewer than one in three Americans have a living will detailing whether they want life-sustaining medical care if they are unable to communicate their medical treatment preferences, according to a new survey by FindLaw.com. This means you could potentially be leaving legal problems for your family if they are unable to communicate your health-care wishes.

A living will, also known as a health-care directive or directive to physicians, is a document in which you can indicate your instructions in advance as to what medical treatments you wish to receive in the event you are unable to communicate those wishes due to illness or the inability to communicate. Under certain conditions, it permits doctors to withhold or withdraw life support systems. In the absence of a living will, medical-care decisions are generally made by a spouse, guardian, health-care agent or majority of parents and children. But if family members disagree and doctors have difficulty deciding on appropriate medical care, the matter may need to be decided in court, and this could be a major legal, family and financial problem.

“Without a living will, there is no clear directive for families and medical professionals to follow in terms of what types of care should be administered or withheld in the event that you become incapacitated or unable to communicate your medical treatment preferences,” says Stephanie Rahlfs, an attorney and editor with FindLaw.com. “Living wills and health-care directives let you specify which treatments you want, and who will make decisions when you’re not able to. Otherwise, misunderstandings and disagreements among family and other care providers can result in delays in treatment or carrying out actions that are contrary to your wishes. Things need to be spelled out in advance through a living will.”

It’s important to make sure your living will conforms to your state of residency’s laws. This is especially important when you have homes in multiple states.

It is also extremely important for your health-care guardian (the person appointed in your health-care power of attorney) to have copies of all these documents. Keep the original in a place where family members can easily find it. Depending on your state, you may wish to sign several copies, have each witnessed and certified, and give an original to the appropriate people, such as family members and family physicians. However, if you change your mind and revoke or change your living will, make sure you destroy all originals and copies.

These are important decisions that need to be taken with careful deliberation and the advice of your attorney. If you don’t have a living will and a health-care power of attorney, please contact your advisor today. The cost of preparing these documents is nominal. The cost of not having these documents and needing them could be enormous.

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