The first thing you must do is decide the answers to some difficult questions about how you would like your life artificially prolonged by a doctor.  The medical field is constantly changing and developing new innovations, so you should discuss your medical treatment wishes with your doctors first, and find out what kind of treatments are available.  The more specific your living will is, the better your doctors and loved ones will be able to follow it, so it is important to be familiar with the sorts of decisions your family may be called on to make one day.

Should I Put My Wishes in Writing?

Absolutely.  Although many states allow oral living wills, there is little evidence of oral statements, and if people have different recollections about what you would have wanted, or perhaps are too emotionally grieved to make the proper decisions, it is essential to have a legal document for your medical caregiver to fall back on.

If a serious illness or injury strikes, and you become unable to make medical treatment decisions, the only way you can be sure to retain your legal ability to control your own medical treatment is by having an living will in writing.  Putting your wishes in writing will remove the uncertainty and the biased opinions of other people from the process, so that only the requests that you want or don’t want are carried out.

How Do I Know What to Put in a Will?

Choosing what to put in a will is entirely up to you, as living wills can be as specific or as broad as you wish them to be.  But there are areas you should certainly cover, such as whether or not you wish to appoint someone with durable power of attorney (this will let someone make medical decisions for you in case something happens that is not covered by your living will), as well as your wishes regarding the most common life-sustaining treatment issues.  Typically this would cover instructions concerning:

  • CPR / Fibrillation:  Do you want doctors to attempt to restart your heart if it stops beating (through electric shock or compressions)?
  • Breathing Tubes:  Do you want doctors to take measures to help you breathe, such as inserting tubes in your throat or putting you on a ventilator?
  • Feeding / Hydration:  Do you want to be indefinitely fed/hydrated if you are in a vegetative state (such as in the well known Schiavo case)?
  • Dialysis:  Do you want to be put on a dialysis machine if your kidneys cease to function?
  • Pain Killers:  What sort of pain management options do you want administered?

An attorney specializing in wills and trusts will be able to help you with the formal process of drafting the will, as well as ensuring that all the legal requirements of your state are met.  Knowing what to put in a will before you draft it can help you avoid costly errors and “do-overs”.  A lawyer in your area can help advise you on what to put in a will.

One important exception to the general living will rules, however, is that most state laws do not allow you to refuse life-prolonging medical procedures if you are pregnant at the time of your medical need. In the case of pregnancy, the living will is usually canceled unless there is absolutely no chance the fetus will survive.

Do I Have to Put Things Regarding my Funeral and Property in my Living Will?

No, a living will and a last will and testament are two very different things.  Living wills are only valid while a person is alive (hence the name), and only deal with how someone wants their affairs handled (both medically and otherwise) if they are incapacitated or unable to make decisions (such as severe Alzheimer’s).  A last will and testament is a document controlling who receives your property, who will be the guardian of any children, who will manage your estate upon your death, and so forth.  It is an entirely separate legal document.

Do I Need an Attorney?

Definitely -the advice of a lawyer will be crucial when considering what to put in a will.  To make sure that your wishes are followed in difficult times, it is very important to make sure you have a legally binding document to use in such cases.  An experienced wills attorney will be able to make sure that your living will meets all state requirements and is legally valid, so that you can rest easy knowing that your medical care will be a decision you made yourself.