What You Need To Know About Creating A Living Will

A living will details the types of medical treatments you would like or not like at the end of life, specifically in terms of life-support treatments. Life-support treatments are any medical procedure, device, or medication to keep you alive when your body may not be able to keep itself alive on its own.

Your doctors will use your living will as they manage your care, and your health care power of attorney will use your living will as a guide for how to best advocate for you.

How a living will works

A living will is a legal document that specifies the types of treatments you would like to receive and not like to receive at the end of your life, specifically if you are suffering from a terminal or progressive illness, if you are ill and it is unlikely that you will recover, or if you are in a coma (persistent vegetative state).

To fill out a living will, you must obtain your state's living will or advance health directive form and indicate on the form whether you would like to receive life-support treatments at the end of life or whether you would not like to receive life-support treatments at the end of life. Once you've completed the form, you need to have a witness countersign the document. The witness may be anyone over the age of 18 who is not your health care power of attorney.

To learn more about types of life-support treatments, see our article Evaluating Life-Support Treatments.

Once the living will form is completed and signed by you and a witness, it is legally binding. You should store a copy of the document with your other important documents, and be sure to give a copy to your health care power of attorney. You may want to share a copy with your doctor as well.

To learn about storing your important documents, see Organize and Share Important Documents.

When a living will goes into effect

A living will is only used if you are deemed incapacitated and incompetent by at least one doctor. If you are merely incapacitated, as in a situation where you may not be able to speak but you are likely to recover, your living will won't go into effect (though this may be a situation in which your health care power of attorney can act on your behalf). So long as you are mentally competent and can speak on your own behalf, your living will won't be used.

To learn about naming a health care power of attorney, see our article Naming a Health Care Power of Attorney.

How to complete a living will

Living will forms vary from state to state, so in order to complete a living will you'll need to print out your state's forms from our State-by-State Advance Health Care Directive tool.  Be aware that you must create your living will yourself; that is, no one can create a living will on behalf of another person. In addition, a person who creates a living will must be of sound mind in order for the living will to be legally binding.

Communicating your wishes to your family

A living will communicates your health care wishes to your medical caregivers and your health care power of attorney. You may also to communicate your wishes to your family, so that they know how you are thinking about your care at the end of your life. It's possible that some family members will not understand the choices you've made in your living will; while you can try to explain your choices to those people, remember that you're making choices for yourself about your own medical care and your own life. While it would be ideal if everyone could support you in those choices, it's okay if that is not the case.

For help deciding which medical treatments you want and which you do not want, see our article Evaluating Life-Support Treatments.

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