What is a Living Will?

Living will, healthcare directive, and advance directive all generally refer to the same legal document.

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by Rebecca Berlin

A living will is a legal document that a person uses to make known his or her wishes regarding life prolonging medical treatments. It can also be referred to as an advance directive, health care directive, or a physician's directive. A living will should not be confused with a living trust, which is a mechanism for holding and distributing a person's assets to avoid probate. It is important to have a living will as it informs your health care providers and your family about your desires for medical treatment in the event you are not able to speak for yourself.

The requirements for a living will vary by state so you may want to have a lawyer prepare your living will. Many lawyers who practice in the area of estate planning include a living will and a health care power of attorney in their package of estate planning documents. If you need to write or update a will or trust, you can take care of your living will at the same time.

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Generally, a living will describes certain life prolonging treatments. You, the declarant, indicate which treatments you do or do not want applied to you in the event you either suffer from a terminal illness or are in a permanent vegetative state. A living will does not become effective unless you are incapacitated; until then you'll be able to say what treatments you do or don't want.

They usually require a certification by your doctor and another doctor that you are either suffering from a terminal illness or permanently unconscious before they become effective as well. This means that if you suffer a heart attack, for example, but otherwise do not have any terminal illness and are not permanently unconscious, a living will does not have any effect. You would still be resuscitated, even if you had a living will indicating that you don't want life prolonging procedures. A living will is only used when your ultimate recovery is hopeless.

For situations where you are incapacitated and therefore not able to speak for yourself, but your health is not so dire that your living will becomes effective, you should have a health care power of attorney or health care proxy. A health care power of attorney is a legal document that gives someone else the authority to make health care decisions for you in the event you are incapacitated. The person you designate to make health care decisions on your behalf is supposed to consider what you would want, so be sure to talk with them about it. It may be a difficult conversation, but you're asking someone to take on a great burden for you - letting him or her know what you want lessens that burden.

None of these documents will do you any good if no one knows about them. You have to talk with your doctor and the person you designate as your health care proxy. Discuss with your doctor what kinds of end of life medical treatments you want. He or she can help you by answering any questions you have about certain treatments. Once you've decided what it is you do or don't want, make your wishes known to your doctor and your family.

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