A living will is a document that outlines how you want your health care managed in the event you’re no longer able to make your own decisions. You can name individuals, or proxies, in the will as agents to make these decisions on your behalf. A living will is also known as an advance health care directive.
Although living wills are usually drafted with end-of-life care and estate planning in mind, they shouldn’t be put off until you’re older. It’s important to prepare for these important decisions at any age.
What’s included in a living will?
In general, a living will should provide directions, called medical directives, for how specific decisions should be handled if you can’t make the decisions for yourself. Common medical directives include:
- Whether or not to be resuscitated via CPR if your heart stops
- Whether or not to be intubated via mechanical breathing if you’re unable to breathe on your own
- Whether or not to be given palliative care, such as pain medication, at the end of your life
- Whether or not to be fed intravenously or via tube feeding, and for how long
- Whether or not to be given antibiotics and antivirals to manage infections at the end of your life
- Which organs and tissues to donate
- Whether or not to donate your body to science after you pass
Your doctor can walk you through each topic and explain your options. It can be a challenging process, so take your time.
Once you’ve made up your mind, you’ll need to document your directives in the form of a living will. Some states may require the form to be signed by a witness and/or notarized. Clearly spell out what you want done in each situation so there’s no room for misinterpretation.
Appointing a healthcare proxy
It’s not necessary to choose a healthcare proxy, but many people do. Your healthcare proxy will be the individual named in your living will to carry out your medical directives. Proxies can be family members, close friends, or an attorney. They may also be referred to by a different name in your state, including:
- Patient advocate
- Health care surrogate
- Health care agent
- Health care attorney-in-fact
It’s very important to discuss your wishes with your potential proxies. Make sure they understand exactly what you want done. Consider talking about their views on dying and end-of-life treatment, religious beliefs, and perspectives on health care.
It’s important that you appoint someone you trust to enforce your medical directives — even if others may disagree with your wishes.
Healthcare proxy vs. power of attorney
Healthcare proxies only have the ability to make medical decisions on your behalf. On the other hand, granting someone power of attorney lets them make financial decisions for you. This may be necessary if your state categorizes managing health insurance and health care bills as financial decisions. If you’d like to grant your proxy power of attorney, an estate lawyer can walk you through the process.
How to get started on a living will
The specific requirements for a living will vary by state. It’s a good idea to research your local requirements to ensure your living will is in full compliance and is executed accurately.
You might also consider speaking with an estate attorney for guidance as you make your living will or utilizing online digital estate planning tools to create and execute key planning documents.
You have a living will. Now what?
Once you’ve finalized a living will, distribute copies to everyone who needs it. This may include your proxies, doctor, health care provider, attorney, friends, and family members. You may also want to keep a copy in a secure location, such as a safe. That way, a copy will always be available even if others are lost.