Facts You Need to Know About Living Wills

A living will is an important document for everyone. It specifies the detailed instructions concerning medical care for a patient when they are unable to make medical decisions concerning their care during a terminal illness or injury. Having your wishes

A living will is a legal document established for anyone unable to make their own personal medical decisions about their care in a life threatening situation. Living wills are generally constructed for someone that is incapacitated physically or mentally. These documents discuss a person’s requests on how to handle matters for their medical care and designate someone the power to make these decisions on their behalf when they are no longer able to, usually during a life threatening circumstance. These are facts you need to know about living wills.

Nearly all living wills leave instructions for a spouse, close friend or relative to handle end of life medical care decisions. They will generally cover common decisions and directives to take place when a person is close to death. The designated person is referred to as a living will proxy.

The choices made for a living will are all personal and will differ for each person. This legal document should be created while a person is still in good physical and mental health. Choices should be well thought out and can be made based on religious and personal beliefs concerning life, death and medical care in general. Detailed requests for medical treatment are included in a living will.

A living will proxy

Even with a living will in place, if you have a designated medical representative with medical choices different from your living will proxy, medical care can be directed by your medical representative while you are alive and unable to make medical decisions. For an example, you may be unconscious and unable to make a medical decision that may not be life threatening, but can be life changing. The decision to amputate a leg may not be life or death, on the other hand they are certainly life changing. A medical representative can make both life changing and life and death decisions if a living will is not in place.

If a medical representative has different ideas or conclusions about your medical care than a living will proxy there can be decisions that cannot be resolved or agreed upon by the two.  For this reason the majority of people will make their living will proxy and medical representative the same person. This will assure there are no disagreements with medical care wishes. Additionally, discussions should be had while you are in good mental and physical health with this person about your personal desires concerning how medical care should be handled and end of life wishes.

Disagreements in medical care between a medical representative and a living will proxy can be a legal issue that must be resolved by a court of law in a number of situations.

A living will proxy cannot be a personal physician or employees of hospitals and medical institutions that are treating you when the living will is constructed. Without a living will a patient’s spouse or nearest relative will make medical decisions in the same circumstances where a proxy is needed.

Why have a living will?

A living will make certain you are in control of your medical care even when you are no longer able to make decisions. Additionally, your family doesn’t have the burden of having to make these decisions for you during a time of emotional stress. Family and friends can also rest assured they are following your personal requests.

 When should a living will be created?

Waiting until a patient’s mental health or physical health has failed to have a discussion about what to rule on medical care is not the idea of a living will.  If you are in bad mental or physical health it may be too late to express your medical care requests to anyone. A number of patients are unable to convey what their wishes are when their health has failed in some situations. After mental or physical health has failed is the time for a proxy to step in to make verdicts and they don’t know what your wishes are without a living will. This is why a living will is created when you are of “sound” mind, body and health.

This document should be in place before you need it. Although this document can be changed or nullified before you need it, being in good mental and physical health can help you make better decisions about a situation you are hoping will never happen.

What should be included in a living will?

Determinations should be made about your quality of life, prolonging life in a terminal situation or the alleviation of suffering in a medical situation. Personal wishes for religious ceremonies or personnel during this time can be included. What medical procedures should or should not be done can be described. Detail what you define as a quality of life you no longer want to live with. All of these should be included in this document.

Living wills tell medical staff if you want a ventilator when you can no longer breathe on your own. It can let everyone know if you don’t want dialysis treatments when kidneys no longer function or life support when brain function has ceased. Do you want heroic measures taken if your heart stops several times during surgery? These are several examples of personal decisions and choices outlined in the average living will.

Any decisions for medical care can be found in a living will, including what facility or professional you would like for your care. You can also stipulate you would like no medical care at all provided in life threatening situations if you wish.

Where to get a living will

A living will can be obtained several different places. Usually a patient’s doctor office can provide free living will forms. The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization has an online living will form available for download and printing. Each state has a different document. Make certain the correct document is used for the state a patient lives in. All legal documents will need to be notarized, including a living will.

Make several copies of the living will and distribute them to different friends and relatives. Most importantly make certain your doctor has a copy of the form. This is important in case there is a sudden illness or accident when you are unable to get this form to the proxy or persons that need it in case of emergency.

Keeping the only copy of a living will in a safe deposit box does not help you if you cannot get to it when it is needed.

How living wills and last will and testaments differ

Living wills are different from a last will and testament. Living wills indicate your personal choices for medical care while you are still alive. A last will and testament reflects decisions requested after death. Living will directives should be discussed with family.

In conclusion

A living will is a legal document that helps a patient rest assured their personal wishes for medical care are known and followed when they cannot express them. This document will help a patient’s loved ones know what their final wishes were concerning medical care and hopefully relieve some of the burden from loved ones making these decisions at an extremely difficult time.


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Sandy James
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