What is a Living Will?

patient on hospital bed receiving care made known in a living will

If you become unconscious in a tragic ski accident, suffer severe and prolonged memory loss, or any other number of unfortunate events, you may temporarily or permanently lose the ability to make and communicate health care decisions. By stating your health care preferences in advance, you can provide important guidance to your loved ones, health care agent, and attending medical team regarding the type of care you wish to receive.

The legal document that allows you to do this is called a “living will.” For the most part, you can provide advance guidance on your preferences for any decision to which you could have otherwise consented were you not incapacitated. In practice, most people provide their answers to a few common end-of-life care topics:

To what extent do you want to prolong life if (a) you have an incurable condition that will result in your death in a relatively short, (b) you become unconscious and are unlikely to regain consciousness, and (c) the likely risks and burdens of further treatment outweigh the expected benefits?

Do you want to receive artificial nutrition and hydration if necessary to keep you alive?

Are there any exceptions or circumstances under which you would not want to receive relief from pain? Unless you specify otherwise, doctors have an ethical, moral, and legal obligation to treat pain as effectively as possible

While these end-of-life topics may be difficult to contemplate, documenting your instructions through a living will today prevents the burden of making these decisions from possibly falling on your loved ones or health care agent down the road. Without a living will, if you are unable to make your own health care decisions, your loved ones or health care agent will need to make those decisions for you based on what they believe to be in your best interest and wishes.

How to make a living will

You can create a living will as a standalone document or as part of a broader advanced health care directive. State law governs the creation and use of living wills. Therefore, if you are creating your living will online or by yourself, you should make sure that the documents you are creating are specific to your state.

Did you know? All living wills created through Just In Case Estates are specifically designed and formatted to comply with the requirements of your state.

Step 1: The first step to creating your own living will is to obtain a living will form that complies with your state’s requirements. If you create your estate plan through Just In Case Estates, we take care of this for you via our extensive legal form library. Alternatively, you may be able to obtain a free form template through your primary health care provider, or you can reference the portion of your state statutes concerning living wills to check the requirements and/or see if your state has a statutory form.

Step 2: Follow the form instructions and complete the necessary information. If this is your first time reflecting on some of the available end-of-life instructions, consider speaking with a trusted friend to help you explore your options. If you are religious, you might also consider speaking with one of your local religious leaders or reviewing religious publications on the subject.

Step 3: Make it official by signing your living will with the proper witness and/or notary signatures. Don’t let your signing ceremony be an after-thought. Although many states’ laws encourage health care providers to assume in the absence of evidence to the contrary that a living will is validly executed, you don’t want your living will’s validity to be disputed, particularly if your instructions run counter to values other close family members may hold. Choose qualified, disinterested witnesses and make sure that you verbally communicate to them your desire to making this document your living will, along with any other attestations required by your state.

What to do after making your living will

Sharing your living will. After you make your living will, give a copy of the signed and completed form to your physician, to any other health care providers you may have, to any health care institution at which you are receiving care, and to any healthcare agents you named in a medical power of attorney (if applicable). Discussing your choices with close family members is also a good idea to ensure that they are not later caught off-guard on your decisions.

Registering your living will. Some states offer residents the opportunity to register their living wills or advance health care directives in a state registry for a nominal fee. If you are unable to make your own health care decisions and your attending medical team does not have a copy of your living will on hand, your attending medical team will likely search the state registry.