Living Will Definition
A living will, also called an advance directive, is a legal document that outlines your specific preferences regarding life-sustaining medical care and treatment if you become incapacitated and can’t communicate your wishes yourself.
If your doctor determines you’re terminally ill or injured, permanently unconscious, or in end-stage condition, you have a right to decide how much life-sustaining care you want to receive.
Some want to be put on life support or receive other types of treatments to extend their life as much as possible. Others simply want to receive palliative care and be kept comfortable without extending their life.
Whatever your choice, creating a living will ensures your doctor knows how to respond if you’re unable to communicate your health care wishes in a life-threatening situation.
Other terms for a living will
For your reference, the following all have the same meaning as living will:
- Advance Directive
- Directive to Physicians
- Personal Directive
- Advance Healthcare Directive
Although the document names are often used synonymously, a living will is just one type of advance directive.
What to Include in Your Living Will
A living will form prompts you to consider what level of treatment and care you’d like to receive in various situations where doctors are reasonably certain you won’t fully recover.
In addition to the provided conditions, you can use your living will to leave instructions for any other aspect of your health care and treatment depending on your personal beliefs.
Your living will should address your preferences regarding the following treatments:
- Tube feeding
- Artificial hydration
- Pain management
- Organ and tissue donation
- Use of dialysis and breathing machines
- Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR)
- Diagnostic testing
- Use of antibiotic/antiviral medications
- Blood transfusion
- Administration of drugs
Also consider naming someone who can access your medical records in order to make decisions about your healthcare if you’re incapacitated — especially if you don’t have a health care agent.
Why You Should Have a Living Will
A living will is a document any adult can benefit from, but many people don’t think about the type of medical treatment and care they would or wouldn’t want to receive until they’re about to undergo surgery or are diagnosed with an illness.
If you don’t have any sort of advance directive in place, your family members (usually your spouse or children) will have to decide what treatments you’ll receive. This can put loved ones in an extremely difficult position, especially if you’ve never told them your preferences.
You may choose to use multiple advance directives to outline your medical preferences in a crisis.
For example, you could pair your living will with a:
- Medical Power of Attorney — a medical power of attorney allows you to appoint a health care agent (sometimes called a health care proxy) to make healthcare decisions on your behalf.
- Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) — a DNR instructs medical professionals to withhold or withdraw resuscitation in the event you stop breathing or your heart stops beating.
For all the situations we can’t prepare for, it’s a good idea to have advance directives in place so health care workers know exactly how to provide care and treatment for you even if you’re in a condition where you can’t communicate.
Living Will vs. Power of Attorney
Living wills and medical powers of attorney (durable power of attorney for healthcare) are both types of advance directives that can be used to communicate your preferences for health care and treatment in emergency situations.
A medical power of attorney is a legal document used to designate a health care agent (proxy) to communicate your wishes and make decisions about your healthcare if you become unable to communicate with your doctor. You should only appoint a health care agent you trust to carry out your wishes.
A living will is another type of health care directive in which you describe your preferences for specific medical procedures and treatments.
Many people combine these two types of directives to create a comprehensive end-of-life care plan in which your agent can step in to make any healthcare decisions not covered by your living will if you become incapacitated.
Living Will vs. Will
A last will and testament describes how you want your estate to be dealt with after your death.
It can give instructions on how to distribute your property and possessions, how to address your debts, charitable contributions, and bequests, and allows you to designate a guardian to care for dependent minors or elders.
A last will and testament only goes into effect upon your death, and it’s not legally binding when you’re alive.
A living will, on the other hand, details medical instructions to be followed while you’re alive. Living wills don’t have anything to do with your estate or assets, though they are often part of the estate planning process as a whole.
Living Will FAQ
Let’s discuss some of the most commonly asked living will questions:
What does it mean to be terminally ill or injured?
You’re considered terminally ill or injured when a qualified doctor determines that you have an incurable condition that will eventually lead to your death. The doctor must be reasonably certain you won’t recover to make this diagnosis.
What does it mean to be permanently unconscious?
You’re considered permanently unconscious when one or more qualified doctors determine, within a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that:
- you can no longer think,
- you can no longer feel anything,
- you can no longer knowingly move, or,
- you are no longer aware of being alive.
The doctor(s) must believe that this condition will last indefinitely without hope for improvement, and have watched you long enough to determine that you’re permanently unconscious.
Can family override a living will?
No, your family members can’t override your living will. The preferences you document in a living will, or any other medical directive, will take precedence over what your family, or even your health care agent, thinks is best for you.
Does a living will need to be notarized?
Depending on your state’s laws, your living will may need to be notarized and signed in front of witnesses to be considered legally binding. States also have different requirements for who can be a witness — usually doctors and other health care providers who could have a conflict of interest can’t act as a witness for their patients’ living wills.
When does a living will go into effect?
A living will goes into effect when your doctor determines you can’t communicate your health care wishes due to incapacitation. Some states require two doctors to provide written certification of your incapacitation before your living will becomes effective.
Although the document becomes legally binding when it’s signed according to state requirements, it has no effect on your care and treatment while you’re still competent and capable of making and communicating decisions about your care.