DEFINITION of 'Living Will'

A living will is a legal document that specifies the type of medical care that an individual does or does not want in the event that he is unable to communicate his wishes.

In the case of an unconscious person who suffers from a terminal illness or a life-threatening injury, doctors and hospitals consult his living will to determine whether or not the patient wants life-sustaining treatment, such as assisted breathing or tube feeding. In the absence of a living will, decisions about medical care become the responsibility of the spouse, family members or other third parties. These individuals may be unaware of the patient’s desires, or they may not wish to follow the patient’s unwritten, verbal directives.

BREAKING DOWN 'Living Will'

Living wills come into play only when you face a life-threatening condition and you are unable to communicate your desires for treatment. Doctors don’t consult the wills for standard medical care that doesn’t involve life-threatening situations. Every state provides for the drafting of a living will, although some states call the document a medical directive or a health-care proxy. Some states let you prepare a detailed, customized living will, while others require you to fill out a standardized form.

What Is Included in a Living Will?

A living will addresses many of the medical procedures common in life-threatening situations, such as resuscitation via electric shock, ventilation and dialysis. You can choose to allow some of these procedures or none of them. You also can indicate whether or not you wish to donate your organs and tissues after death. Even if you refuse life-sustaining care, you can express your desire to receive pain medication throughout your final hours.

In most states, you can extend your living will to cover situations where you have no brain activity or where doctors expect you to remain unconscious for the rest of your life, even if a terminal illness or life-threatening injury isn’t present. Because these situations can occur to any person at any age, it’s a good idea for all adults to have a living will.

What Is a Health-Care Proxy?

In addition to the living will, you can select a health-care proxy who is allowed to make decisions for you if you are incapable of making those choices. Some states call this individual a health-care power of attorney. Living wills cover many medical decisions, but a health-care proxy can consult with your doctor on other issues that may arise. When facing the loss of a loved one, families often disagree over treatment, so having a health-care proxy reduces confusion over your final wishes. Discuss your wishes with your proxy before naming this person, and be sure that he is willing to follow through on your desires.

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