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What Is a Living Will?

Living wills, also known as health care directives, are directions you leave for your family and your doctor should you become so sick that you are unable to make health care decisions for yourself. Living wills are not just for elderly adults, but for everyone.  There are very good reasons why you need a living will:

  • You may be incapacitated and unable to express yourself when the time comes to make a decision.
  • Your family may not agree with your wishes, either continuing or terminating life support against your wishes.
  • You can help your family feel like they have made the right decision if you write it down for them in advance.
  • A living will usually provides protection for the doctor and/or hospital, so they are not liable for honoring your last request.

Living wills allow you to prevent aggressive life support while maintaining your rights to medical care if you have a chance of recovery. Your rights to get pain medication or other care for your comfort are also protected by living wills. 

A living will is not assisted suicide. It is not illegal to let nature follow its course should you elect to refuse life support in a living will. You will be making a final decision, based on a doctor's belief that you have only a slight chance of rehabilitation beyond the life support system.

How Do I Create a Living Will?

Each state has its own laws governing living wills. Most states require, just as with a regular will, that you sign in the company of one or two witnesses. The signatures may or may not need to be notarized. There may be regulations in your state restricting who may act as a witness.  

How Do I Ensure a Living Will Is Followed?

While you may be incapacitated at some point, now is the time to act on your living will. Once it is signed, make copies and distribute them to all concerned:

  • Your physician
  • Family members
  • A close friend
  • The medical records department of a hospital you would likely use near your home
  • If you are in a nursing home or seeing a doctor for a specific treatment, you may want to distribute copies to them as well

Put a card in your wallet stating that you have a living will and the phone number of someone who has a copy. This will help identify your wishes.

What If I Want to Change My Living Will?

There is never a need to update a living will, unless you want to revoke or cancel it. Generally, you should tell everyone (even better, send them a written notice) who has a copy of the living will that you want to cancel it.

Will I Need an Attorney to Draft a Living Will?

An estate planning attorney is not required to create a living will. A paralegal reviewed document preparation service can create a valid living will for a lot less money. However, if you need assistance understanding how to best pass on your assets, an estate planning attorney can advise you on your options.

Photo of page author Peter Clarke

, LegalMatch Content Manager

Last Modified: 03-09-2015 04:14 PM PDT

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