Many of my clients ask me about Living Wills.
This type of Will is a legal document that lets you decide in advance the type of medical care that you want to receive when you are in a terminal condition or permanently unconscious. A Living Will goes into effect only when you are unable to make or communicate your decisions about your own medical care. A Living Will informs your doctor whether you want life support systems to keep you alive or whether you do not want to receive such treatment, even if the final result is your death.
The decision to have a Living Will is a deeply personal choice for which there is no right or wrong decision. You do not have any obligation to make a Living Will, and you cannot be denied medical care or treatment by a physician, hospital, nursing home or other medical care provider if you do not have this type of Will.
Living Will vs. Last Will
Usually in connection with a Living Will, you will name a Health Care Representative. This is a person that you authorize in writing to make health care decisions on your behalf, when you can’t do so on your own, including the decision whether to withhold or withdraw life support systems.
A Living Will is very different from a Last Will & Testament. A Living Will takes effect while you are still alive but cannot otherwise assist your doctor in making end-of-life medical decisions. In contrast, a Last Will & Testament is a legal document that only takes effect after your death. It serves to distribute your remaining property and assets to your heirs according to your wishes.
“Terminal condition” is when the doctor determines that the patient has a medical condition which is:
(1) Incurable and irreversible and
(2) Will result in death in a relatively short period of time if artificial means of life support are not provided.
“Permanently unconscious” means a permanent coma or vegetative state where the patient is not consciously aware of herself or her surroundings and is unresponsive.
“Life Support Systems” means medical treatment that only delays the time of your death or maintains you in a state of permanent unconsciousness. Life Support Systems normally include:
- Cardiopulmonary resuscitation
- Food and fluids through artificial means like feeding tubes and intravenous fluids
Choosing a Will
Living Wills do not permit the direct taking of your life. Instead, this type of Will provides guidance to your doctor regarding prolonging your life against your direct wishes. Having, or not having, a Living Will does not affect your doctor’s obligation to provide you with pain medication or with medical care to maintain your physical comfort. These measures must be provided whenever they are appropriate to your situation whether or not you have a Living Will.
Again, this decision is deeply personal. You may have a very different attitude about having a Will depending upon your age, whether or not you have young children, and your own life experiences.