Living Wills Overview

A living will is not a will in the typical sense as it isn't used to leave property after death. Instead, it's a document that lays out a person's wishes regarding medical treatment should they be unable to communicate with health care providers or family.

It not only ensures these wishes are known, but also protects loved ones from having to make difficult, personal choices if the time came. A living will may also be referred to as an advance directive.

Purpose of a Living Will

Originally, living wills merely allowed for someone to declare that they want a natural death and don't want their life artificially prolonged. In many states, the living will now covers more specific health care concerns, such as artificial feeding or resuscitation efforts. Living wills are valid in all states and are legally binding on physicians and other health care providers.

Medical Power of Attorney

A durable power of attorney for health care, also called a medical power of attorney, health care directive, or health care proxy, is another way to provide binding instructions about health care desires. It, too, is valid in all states.

The durable power of attorney for health care allows a person to give someone legal authority to make health care decisions in the event they cannot.

To learn more, watch the video What Is a Health Care Power of Attorney.

Planning Your Estate: Why a Living Will Is So Important

As an example, take the well-known case of Terry Schiavo who, at only 26 years old, went into cardiac arrest and lapsed into a coma spending the next fifteen years in what doctors diagnosed as an irreversible persistent vegetative state. Terry was unable to make any medical decisions. Her husband believed she would not want to continue living that way and asked for her feeding tube to be removed, but her parents disagreed, causing numerous legal battles and debates.

Planning for such events while you are healthy will save your family a great deal of potential heartache and put the focus where it should be—on your wishes. This planning takes only two steps:

Step One: Prepare a living will in case of medical emergency where you cannot make decisions for yourself. Spell out in detail exactly what kind of medical procedures you do or do not want performed on you. Also indicate whether or not you wish to be resuscitated and your wishes regarding other medical conditions, such as if you were comatose or in a persistent vegetative state. Include your family as you make these decisions so your wishes are clear and understood.

Step Two: Create a durable power of attorney for health care. This allows you to designate someone to act as your sole decision maker. If it is your spouse, name an alternate in case you are both incapacitated, which could happen if you are both injured in an accident. Since a living will does not cover every conceivable situation, your medical power of attorney won’t have instructions for every situation so you will have to trust this person to make decisions that are best for you.

Should the need arise, your family will be grateful that you took the time to prepare for an unfortunate event.