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A Living Will

What is it?

Smiling middle-aged couple in a meeting with an investment adviser planning for their future retirement, over the shoulder view

Have you set up a living will? Make sure you write your living will! 

Chance are, you've heard these statements more than once. If you're like most people, you've either shrugged the notion off, told yourself you'd worry about it later, or assumed it's not really something you need to be concerned with.

But here's the thing: Living wills really are important—more so today than ever before. Once you come to better understand what a living will actually is and what it dictates, you'll agree you need one. We promise.

What is a living will?

The simplest way to define a living will is as follows. It's a legally binding document that states your wishes for treatment (or lack thereof) at the end of your life. If you are not conscious or able to communicate, your living will speaks for you, telling your doctors what procedures you want, and which ones you do not want.

A living will may state, for example, that you do not wish to be kept alive on a ventilator. It may even be more specific, stating something to the effect of "If I have been in a coma for more than 30 days, end life support."

What should be included in a living will?

It's important to sit down with an attorney who has experience drawing up living wills. They will talk through your situation with you and make sure all the necessary directives are included in your living will.

Some common issues addressed in living wills include:

  • Whether you want CPR performed if you are found unconscious.
  • What, if any, pain relievers you are willing to receive.
  • Are you open to organ donation? Which organs and tissues will you donate?
  • Are you open to being put on a ventilator? For how long?
  • Are you willing to receive nourishment via a feeding tube? For how long?

These can be tough questions to think about and to answer. Talk them through with your spouse and other loved ones to make sure those close to you are aware of your wishes. 

What documents can be included as supplements to your living will?

The term "living will" is often misinterpreted. The living will is just the document stating what medical interventions you do and do not want if you are unconscious. It is not your last will and testament, which states what will happen to your estate when you die. It is not a medical power of attorney, either. However, all of these documents fall under the category of advanced directives. Your living will is also an advanced directive.

It's smart to have your other advanced directives drawn up alongside your living will. This way, all of your instructions will coordinate with one another and be available in the same place. Most lawyers will recommend that you draw up a medical power of attorney when you make your living will. This way, your spouse or child can act on your behalf and make medical decisions for you when you're unable to do so. You should also have a durable power of attorney drawn up. This document gives someone else power over your money and physical assets if you are unable to communicate.

Your living will comes into effect if and when you are unconscious but alive. Having this document, and also an accompanying medical power of attorney and durable power of attorney, can give you much peace of mind. Your loved ones will also appreciate knowing that your wishes are formally laid out in a legally binding manner.

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