What Is a Typical Living Will?

by Heather Frances Google
Communicate your wishes in a living will.

Communicate your wishes in a living will.

Ryan McVay/Lifesize/Getty Images

Before you are unable to make health care decisions for yourself or cannot provide directions to your doctors, you can create a living will to document your wishes. Then, if your condition won’t allow you to talk to your doctors or understand your medical situation — perhaps because you are in a persistent vegetative state or irreversible coma — your health care providers can consult your living will to direct your care.

Living Will Vs. Power of Attorney

A living will is meant to direct physicians as they make decisions about your health care, particularly end-of-life care. You may also obtain a power of attorney for health care, but these are not the same thing. A power of attorney names someone else to make your health care decisions if you become unable to do so, whereas a living will documents the decisions you make in advance. For example, your living will might state that you do not wish to have artificial nutrition, but your health care power of attorney could give authority to a family member to make that decision for you when it becomes necessary.

End-of-Life Treatments

Living wills can direct physicians to withhold or administer life-sustaining medical treatments. Consequently, living wills often contain provisions addressing artificial respiration, hydration and nutrition. Living wills also commonly include directions about administering or withholding pain medication. Since a living will can be customized according to your wishes, your living will may be different from the living will of others.

Hospice and Religious Care

Your living will can also address more personal comfort issues, like whether you would like to receive hospice or at-home care. Your living will can even detail whether you would prefer to die at home if possible or prefer to die in a hospital. Similarly, you can specify your religious preferences and request the presence of a priest or pastor when you are close to death.

Formalities

Living wills are governed by state law, though most states will recognize a living will from another state if it was properly drafted under the other state’s laws. Generally, a living will is valid if it is signed by the patient while he is competent, witnessed by two competent individuals and notarized. The witnesses are a common state requirement, and notarization serves as an additional safeguard to verify your identity even if not required by state law.