What is a 'Living Will'

A living will – also known as an advance directive – is a legal document that specifies the type of medical care that an individual does or does not want in the event he or she is unable to communicate his or her wishes.

In the case of an unconscious person who suffers from a terminal illness or a life-threatening injury, doctors and hospitals consult his or her 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 and advance directives come into play only when one faces a life-threatening condition and is unable to communicate his or her 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. One can choose to allow some of these procedures or none of them. One can also indicate whether he or she wishes to donate his or her organs and tissues after death. Even if he or she refuses life-sustaining care, he or she can express the desire to receive pain medication throughout his or her final hours.

In most states, one can extend his or her living will to cover situations where he or she has no brain activity or where doctors expect him or her to remain unconscious for the rest of his or her 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.

How is a Health-Care Proxy Different than a Living Will?

In addition to the living will, one can select a health-care proxy who is allowed to make decisions for him or her if he or she is 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 the 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 one's final wishes. One should discuss his or her wishes with his or her proxy before naming this person and be sure the proxy is willing to follow through with his or her desires.

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