A living will is a type of estate plan that allows a person to express his or her medical and end-of-life treatment decisions, in order to provide family members and health care personnel with clear medical care instructions. In general, if a living will meets legal requirements, then the instructions it provides are legally valid and binding. This section gives an overview of living wills and other health care directives, provides state-specific resources related to these types of estate plans, and contains a link for consulting with an estate planning lawyer in your area.
The Purpose of Having a Living Will
The purpose of a living will is to ensure that a person's medical care and treatment wishes are honored should he or she become mentally incapacitated. For example, if a person decides against receiving life support, he or she can express that decision in a living will. By creating a living will or a similar health care directive, you can accomplish two important goals: you inform family members of the types of treatment that you want and don't want, and you provide them with advanced notice of your intentions, so that there's no uncertainty later on. If you create a living will, you reduce the likelihood of emotional and ugly disputes over your medical and end-of-life care. Unfortunately, the desire to avoid dealing with an awkward and uncomfortable subject leads many people to forego creating living wills.
In a recent survey, 42% of American adults stated that they had created a living will or other health care estate plan of some type. While there's still room for improvement, only 17% of survey respondents had a living will or a similar plan in 1994. The most common reason given for not creating a health care directive was that the subject of mental incapacity and end-of-life care was difficult to approach.
Every state has some form of health care directive for residents to express medical care preferences and instructions. Keep in mind that states may use different terms and have different requirements and procedures. For example, one state might use the term "living will," while another state uses the term "advance health care directive." Also, one state may require medical personnel to obey living will instructions, while another state merely provides medical personnel with legal immunity if they choose to obey will instructions. If you have questions about your state's health care directive laws, it's a good idea to speak with an attorney.
What You Can Express in a Living Will
Depending on the state, a person can provide treatment instructions concerning blood transfusions, dialysis, use of a respirator, and the administration of life-sustaining drugs and intravenous fluids. It goes without saying that these decisions should be carefully considered, with family members and friends consulted. If you begin thinking about your living will early on, you'll give yourself time to plan carefully and to consult with your loved ones.
How an Attorney Can Help
An attorney can answer any questions you have about living wills, and he or she can help you to create a will that states your end-of-life and other medical decisions clearly. This section provides a link for consulting with an experienced estate planning attorney in your area.