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What Is a Living Will?
A living will, sometimes called an advance directive or an advance health care directive, is a legal, written document that contains your preference for medical care if you cannot make decisions for yourself. A living will should guide the choices your caregivers and doctors make in the following circumstances:
- You're terminally ill
- You're seriously injured
- You're in a coma
- You're in the late stages of dementia
Your living will should describe the medical treatments you do and do not wish to be used to keep you alive. You can also include preferences for other medical decisions, such as pain management.
Why Is a Living Will Important?
When you prepare a living will, you can ensure that you receive the medical care you want. A living will also helps to:
- Relieve caregivers of the burden of making a difficult decision in a moment of grief or crisis.
- Reduce disagreement or confusion among family members and caregivers about the choices you would want to make.
Who Should Have a Living Will?
Although you may associate living wills with older adults, living will documents are useful regardless of your age. Unexpected situations, such as a car accident or illness, can happen at any stage of life.
Typically, any adult who is of sound mind and at least 18 years old can create a living will. Sound mind is generally defined as having the ability to understand what the document is and what it contains.
When Does a Living Will Go Into Effect?
A living will can only take effect if you are both alive and unable to communicate.
Your living will can take effect once medical professionals determine that you are in a severe medical condition, as defined by the laws in your state, and unable to communicate your wishes.
A doctor can generally determine:
- Whether you have lost your ability to make decisions or understand treatment options
- Whether you can communicate your wishes in any way
If you name someone who will be in charge of medical decisions that are not related to life support, your living will would go into effect when you can no longer make your own decisions.
How Is a Living Will Different From a Traditional Will?
A will, also known as a last will and testament, differs from a living will.
Your last will and testament lets people know what you want to happen after your death. Details included in this document include how you want others to handle your property and other assets and family responsibilities, such as naming legal guardians for your children.
Your living will, however, lets people know what you want to happen in certain cases while you are still alive but unable to express your wishes for medical care while in a terminal or unconscious state.
Is a Living Will the Same as an Advance Directive?
Generally speaking, a living will is one document, while advance directives can include several documents. A living will can be called different terms in different states. In some cases, the term living will is used with advance directive interchangeably. Make sure you know how your state refers to these documents legally when you need to draft your living will.
Other terms used include the following:
- Advance health care directive
- Directive to physicians
- Declaration regarding life-prolonging procedures
Complete advance directives may include several documents:
- The living will itself
- A do not resuscitate, or DNR, order
- Instructions for organ or tissue donations
- Specific instructions regarding a previously diagnosed illness
- Medical power of attorney
Is a Living Will the Same as a DNR?
Although a living will includes whether you want to be resuscitated in certain situations, it is not the same as a do not resuscitate order. A DNR is a separate document, and it has specific requirements to be valid. A DNR must be prepared in consultation with and signed by your doctor.
A DNR is a legally binding order from a physician stating that no steps will be taken to restore breathing or restart your heart if you experience respiratory or cardiac arrest. Some people choose to create a DNR because steps to restore breathing or restart a heart often involve CPR, which comes with increased risks for ill or older adult patients.
A DNI (do not intubate) is similar to a DNR, but this document covers matters related to intubation.
Image via Flickr by hang_in_there
Questions To Consider When Writing a Living Will
Some questions you will want to think about when writing a living will include the following:
- Do you want or not want certain interventions related to breathing and feeding?
- Do you want to receive or exclude certain pain management medications or procedures?
- Do you want a DNI or DNR order?
- Do you want treatment to extend your life in all situations, or would you refuse treatment in certain situations?
- Would you want to receive treatment only if a cure is possible?
- If you have a special medical condition, what related procedures should be carried out?
Medical Decisions To Address in a Living Will
A living will should address a variety of potential end-of-life care decisions.
Cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR, is used to restart a heart that has stopped beating. Your living will should cover if and when you want to be resuscitated by CPR or an electric shock to stimulate your heart.
If you're unable to breathe on your own, mechanical ventilation can take over your breathing. You should determine the following:
- Whether you would want to be placed on a mechanical ventilator
- When you would want to be placed on a mechanical ventilator
- How long you would want to be on a mechanical ventilator
If you cannot feed yourself, you can receive nutrients and fluids via a tube in your stomach or intravenously. Again, you should determine the following:
- Whether you want to be fed in this way
- When you would want to be fed in this way
- How long you would want to be fed in this way
This process manages fluid levels and removes waste from your blood if your kidneys no longer function. You should decide the following:
- Whether you want to receive dialysis treatment
- When you want to receive this treatment
- How long you would want to receive this treatment
Antibiotics and Antiviral Medications
Various medications exist to treat infections. If you are near the end of your life, do you want infections treated aggressively with medications, or would you prefer to allow an infection to run its course?
Also known as comfort care, these interventions can keep you comfortable and manage your pain while still following your other wishes for treatment. Palliative care can include the following:
- Receiving pain medications
- Avoiding invasive treatments and tests
- Being allowed to die at home
Organ, Tissue, and Body Donations
You can specify wishes for organ and tissue donation in a living will. You will be temporarily kept on life-sustaining treatment until the procedure to remove organs for donation is complete. Stating that you understand the need for this temporary intervention in your living will can help medical professionals avoid confusion about your wishes.
You can also donate your body for scientific study and state this donation in your living will. You should contact a university, medical school, or donation program for information about how to register.
Preparing a living will involves thinking about difficult decisions. Instead of dealing with these matters on your own, contact an experienced lawyer who can help you make sure your wishes are clear.
Meet some of our Living Will Lawyers
I have been practicing law for 35 years. In addition to my law degree, I hold an MBA. I've created six companies, currently act as outside counsel to another 12, and have been an advisor to more than 500 startups and entrepreneurs.
I am a licensed and active Business Attorney, with over 20 years of diverse legal and business experience. I specialize in contract review, drafting, negotiations, ecommerce business transactions, breach of contract issues, contract dispute and arbitration. I am licensed to practice in New York and Connecticut. I am a FINRA and NCDS Arbitrator. My experience includes serving as General Counsel to small businesses. I negotiate, draft and review a wide array of commercial contracts; provide business strategy and employment advice and assist in the sale of businesses entities. I work extensively with various kinds of contracts. In reviewing agreements, I conduct risk analysis of contract and interpret the terms and conditions so that clients understand exactly what their obligations are under the agreement and are protected as much as the law requires. I am detailed and thorough in my review and drafting of agreements. Additionally, I advise clients on how to limit their liability and lower their contractual risk. I specialize in breach of contract issues and arbitration. I have been a Hearing Officer, presiding over cases and rendering written decisions; a Civil Court Arbitrator presiding over cases in contract law, commercial law, etc., a Judicial Clerk in Civil Court; a Vice President at an Investment Bank and an Attorney at top AML law firms.
Carlos Colón-Machargo is a fully bilingual (English-Spanish) attorney-at-law and Certified Public Accountant (CPA) with over twenty years of experience. His major areas of practice include labor and employment law; business law; corporate, contract and tax law; and estate planning. He is currently admitted to practice law in Georgia, Florida, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico and currently licensed as a CPA in Florida. He received a Master of Laws from the Georgetown University Law Center in 1997, where he concentrated in Labor and Employment Law (LL. M. in Labor and Employment Law) and a Juris Doctor, cum laude, from the Inter American University.
Graduate of Georgetown Law (J.D. and LL.M in Taxation) Injury Claims Adjuster before law school for top insurer Eight plus years of legal experience Past roles: Associate at premier boutique law firm in the DC metro area Policy Associate at a large academic and research institution Solo Practice Areas of Expertise: Contracts Business Formation Trusts and Estates Demand Letters Entertainment Transactions
As a business law attorney serving Coral Springs, Parkland, and Broward County, FL, Matthew has been recognized as “AV” rated, which is the highest rating an attorney can achieve through Martindale’s Peer Review system. Year after year Matthew is listed in the “Legal Leaders” publication as a top-rated attorney in South Florida in the areas of litigation, commercial litigation, and real estate. Matthew is also a graduate and instructor of the Kaufman Foundation’s FastTrac NewVenture Program, presented by the Broward County Office of Economic and Small Business Development.
John Benemerito is the Founder and Managing Partner of Benemerito Attorneys at Law. Admitted to practice in New York and New Jersey, John represents small business owners and startups in the areas of Business and Securities Law. John received his Bachelors Degree at John Jay College of Criminal Justice where he majored in Criminal Justice. Afterwards, he attended New York Law School where he focused his studies on Corporate and Securities Law. John comes from a family of entrepreneurs. From as far back as he can remember he was always involved in his family’s numerous businesses. At the age of fifteen, John entered into a new business venture with his father and managed to grow and maintain that business through high school, college and law school.John is currently a co founder in over five different businesses. After law school, John decided that he wanted to help people like himself. He opened his own law practice and began working primarily with small business owners until he was introduced into the startup world. Ever since that time, John has worked with hundreds of startups and thousands of entrepreneurs from all different backgrounds in helping them achieve their goals. Having been an entrepreneur his entire life, John understands what it takes to create and maintain a successful business. He enjoys sitting down and working with his clients in figuring out each of their unique challenges.
California-based small business attorney handling matters related to securities, mergers & acquisitions, corporate governance, and other business transactions.