Living Will

By Lisa BowlinJanuary 1, 2022

What is a Living Will?

A living will is a document that details an individual's wishes about their medical care at the end of their life. It can also give information about the person's preferences for life-sustaining treatment. Living wills are useful in situations where someone is incapacitated or unconscious and not able to tell doctors or medical staff what they want. Living wills can be created for adults of any age, but they are more common with elderly people.

In the living will, the individual can customize the document with specific instructions for various medical treatments, such as artificial ventilation, life support, tube feeding, organ donation and other procedures. The person writing the living will may give treatment instructions for terminal conditions or hospice care. It may also give details about what happens to the person's body after their death. A living will should be signed and notarized to make it official. In some places, instead of using a notary, individuals can have a witness affirm their living will to make it valid.

Why and Who Should Use a Living Will?

A living will is beneficial to any adult. People with dangerous jobs may want to have a living will set up just in case. Seniors should have a living will to prepare for the next stage of life in case of a serious medical diagnosis. Additionally, a younger adult with a history of chronic medical conditions may also want to consider drafting a living will.

Without a living will, doctors will make decisions based on the family's wishes. If someone has a specific desire for their care, this may not match the closest family members' requests. Someone who wants to donate their body to science or donate their organs may also not be able to without a living will.

Advantages of Using a Living Will?

Finalizing a living will doesn't require a lawyer's intervention, but the person preparing the document can choose to have a legal person look at it. Even though the thought of death is unpleasant, writing a living will offers plenty of benefits.

  • Prevents Family Conflict – If there is a clear living will on file, the family doesn't have to be the ones to make decisions about someone's care at the end of their life. Family members may not be in agreement about treatment, so having a clear directive prevents conflicts.
  • Provides Clarity – The person writing the living will gives their medical team clarity about what will happen at the end of their life. It can also give the medical team clear instructions regarding interventions.
  • Gives Closure – Family members can struggle to say goodbye to their loved one at the end of their life. With a living will, they get that emotional freedom to let go and get closure without feeling guilt.

When To Use a Living Will?

If someone decides to prepare a living will, they first need to determine their preferences for various types of care, such as tube feeding, resuscitation and terminal illnesses. They also need to decide what they want to happen to their body after their death. Many jurisdictions also require two witnesses to sign the living will. The person writing the document should find two people who are not related to them to sign. If they need to get it notarized, they should also locate a notary.

After completing the document, the individual should distribute copies of their living will. They should give a copy to their primary care doctor, their medical center or hospital, their spouse, children or another close family member, their attorney and anyone else who has been chosen to make decisions for them in case of incapacitation. It may also be important to have the living will be permanently placed in their medical records or estate planning documents.

Related Resources

Some people want to be able to donate their organs if they die. This is something that could be specified in a living will. The National Institute of Health has a guide for older people who want to donate their organs. Additionally, it provides resources for organ recipients and encourages more people to register on a nationwide organ donation registry service.

When someone has dementia and a living will, there can be some challenges. The Alzheimer's Association publishes a brochure explaining some tips for end of life directives and care for Alzheimer's patients. Having a living will in place before the diagnosis gets too bad is one way to honor the patient's wishes and prevent family conflict.

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