What is required in order to create a valid living will varies between states, but the main requirement is that your statements and instructions are put in writing and signed by you. Most states require that you sign the living will in front of witnesses, and some states even require that the document be notarized.

In order to create a living will you must be of sound mind when doing so and you must have reached the age of majority, which is 18 years old in most states.

What Exactly is a Living Will?

People sometimes confuse a living will with a last will and testament, which deals with the distribution of your property upon death. Instead, a living will is a legal document that is a type of advance medical directive. It states to what extent you wish to receive life-sustaining medical treatment in the event you become incapacitated or seriously ill, and under what circumstances you would want the doctors in charge of your care to forgo providing additional life-sustaining treatment.

Other advance medical directives, such as a healthcare proxy, appoint another person to make a wider variety of medical decisions on your behalf, whereas the scope of a living will is typically more narrow and only addresses end-of-life care. Common terminology used in a living will to clarify the scope is “suffering from an incurable or irreversible condition with no reasonable expectation of recovery.”

To ensure that your wishes are honored, healthcare providers or anyone else who knowingly violates a living will can be subject to legal consequences.

What Should I Include in My Living Will?

Your living will should clearly state your wishes for end-of-life medical care. Some common topics people address in a living will include the following:

  • Resuscitation: Make it clear if and when you would want to be resuscitated by CPR or by a device that delivers an electric shock to stimulate the heart.
  • Life Support: Indicate whether you would want to be kept alive using a ventilator or a feeding tube. If you would want to be provided live support, also indicate for how long and under what terms. Your wishes may differ if you’re in a vegetative or comatose condition.
  • Palliative Care: Decide what interventions you would want to be used to keep you comfortable and manage pain (while still abiding by your other treatment wishes, of course). This may include being provided with pain medications, avoiding invasive tests or treatments, or even being allowed to die at home.
  • Organ and tissue donations: You’ll also want to clarify whether you want to have any remaining viable organs removed to be donated to someone in need. Some people also choose to specify certain organs that they want to exclude from donation, such as their eyes or skin.
  • Donating your body for scientific study: If you want your body donated for research purposes, that should also be mentioned in your living will.

When Does a Living Will Take Effect?

Generally speaking, a living will becomes effective when the person who made it becomes incapable of making important health care decisions on their own. In most cases, this refers to circumstances where the person has become incapacitated or unconscious.

Of course a living will won’t accomplish much if people don’t know about it. Be sure to inform your doctor and your family that you have created a living will and make sure they either have a copy or know where to get one.
Lastly, living wills are revocable at any time before they take effect. You can modify the documents as you see fit, but the changes you make must be made with the same formalities as when the living will was originally created (i.e., signatures, witnesses, etc.).

It’s also important to note that in most states, a living will is not considered valid if the person who created it happens to be pregnant at the time they become incapacitated. There may be other exceptions and factors to consider with living wills. These may depend on the specific state or local laws in your area, so check with an attorney if you have questions about your living will.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help With Making a Living Will?

Living wills often require guidance during the creation and revision stages. If you need assistance, it’s in your best interest to hire an experienced estate lawyer for help with your documents.

A lawyer can help to make sure that your wishes are clearly stated, that the document is properly witnessed and executed, and to ensure that you don’t forget to address anything. This will help avoid disputes in the future and make sure that your end-of-life care is handled exactly the way you want it to be.