Having a will or trust is important to estate planning, but do you have a living will? If you're like 70% of the population, you don't.
While your end-of-life care may not be first and foremost on your mind, making the tough decisions about life-sustaining medical treatments when you're healthy — and documenting them in a living will — helps to ensure that your health care wishes will be fulfilled when you're unable to speak for yourself.
Living will and health care power of attorney
- What is a living will? A living will is a legal document that outlines your health care wishes in the event that you become terminally ill and/or permanently incapacitated or unconscious due to injury, illness, or advanced age. It lets health care providers and your family know which life-sustaining medical treatments you want or don't want. Each state defines the parameters differently, so check your state law. Since a living will cannot anticipate every possible situation, experts recommend combining your living will with a health care power of attorney to create an advance directive, also known as an advanced health care directive.
- What is a health care power of attorney? A health care power of attorney, or medical power of attorney, is a legal document that grants power to another person to make health care decisions on your behalf should you become so ill or injured that you can't do it for yourself. This person is called a health care agent, or health care proxy. Make sure your health care agent is someone you trust to advocate for you, to be available for what could be a significant amount of time, and to remain steady during a highly emotional time.
Creating a living will or advance directive
- Hire an attorney or do it yourself. An attorney who focuses on estate planning can create an advance directive for you and will know your state's laws. You can also create one on your own, but you must make sure it meets your state's requirements. Resources available to you include legal document creation software; a free living will form provided by your physician, local hospital, local senior center, or state's medical association; and The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, which allows you to download a state-specific advance directive form.
- Research your state's requirements. No matter how you create your advance directive, find out your state's requirements. You must be at least 18 years old and of sound mind at the time you create your living will. Depending on your state, you may also need witnesses and/or notarization.
- Determine your end-of-life care. Decide what kind of medical treatments you want for yourself, such as artificial respiration, palliative care, or nourishment, when you get to the end of life or become completely incapacitated. Consider researching these health care matters and discuss them with your physician. Once you've made your decisions, write them down along with your rationale and feelings to help your loved ones understand your preferences, especially if it's possible they might disagree.
- Reassess your living will as needed. Your advance directive isn't set in stone. Change it as your perspective or situation changes due to age, decline, or a major life event, such as death, divorce, or a diagnosis.
Share your health care wishes
- Tell your health care agent and family. Let your health care proxy and loved ones know of your advance directive and your life-prolonging preferences. This way, your health care agent will know how to act on your behalf and your family will be informed should anything happen.
- Keep your advance directive in a safe place. Make sure your living will and health care power of attorney are kept in a safe place that your health care agent can access, if needed.
- Make copies of your advance directive. In addition to your health care agent and family, give a copy of your advance directive to your physician to keep on file, as well as to your hospital, if going in for a major procedure.
While creating a living will or advance directive may be difficult in the short term, its long-term benefit is knowing that you will be taken care of according to your wishes... and that your loved ones will be relieved from having to make these tough decisions for you during an emotionally stressful time.