What is a living will and why do I need one?

What is a living will?

A living will is a document that allows you to state your wishes and directives concerning your medical care in case you are unable to communicate your choices. It is essentially a blueprint for how you wish to be treated when you are close to death. Mainly, it will allow you to refuse treatment that will artificially prolong life and that you would normally receive in the absence of a living will.

How does it work?

Simply put, it lays out your instructions for how your doctor is going to treat you when you become incapacitated. It can, and should, cover a variety of questions such as:

  • When to administer, or not administer, certain life prolonging medical treatments
  • Whether to continue giving you food and water when your survival may hinge on it
  • Whether to administer pain relieving medication
  • Whether to pursue painful, expensive or complex surgeries that may prolong your life but not reverse your medical condition or cure your incapacity

These questions are extremely personal and individualized. Because of that, it is important to give each of these ample thought and you may even want to discuss the choices with your doctor before putting them into your living will.

When does the living will come into effect?

The living will only comes into effect when you can no longer make your own decisions and are considered incapacitated. Generally you are considered incapacitated when:

  • You cannot understand the nature and consequences of the health decisions that you are facing and;
  • You are unable to communicate your own wishes for care whether orally, in writing, through gestures or through any means whatsoever

This usually only occurs only when a person is extremely ill and close to death. Often incapacitation rises when you are in a coma-like state. The treating doctor will decide when you are incapacitated and when the living will should go into effect.

Why is it important to have a living will?

In the absence of a living will most doctors and hospitals will do everything they can to preserve your life. This means that even if you are incapacitated, they will continue to nourish your body and perform surgeries and procedures that prolong your life. Although many people desire this, some may not. It could mean months or even years of being on life support while being mentally and physically unaware. Generally, if a person wishes to not receive life prolonging treatment a living will is the best way to communicate that choice. Because of the personal nature of these decisions, a living will is recommended to anyone concerned with near death treatment.

Does a living will cover all the needs that I will encounter when incapacitated?

The short answer to that question is no. A living will should be accompanied by a durable power of attorney for health care, a durable power of attorney for finances, and other estate planning documents. These other documents will allow you to appoint someone to make decisions for you in case situations arise that are not covered in your living will. They will also help ensure your wishes are met that concerns your finances and other non-medical decisions.

Contact an attorney

The law regarding living wills varies from state to state, so contact a local attorney who can help you prepare a living will and ensure that your wishes and rights are protected in regard to estate planning.[1]


[1] Denis Clifford, Plan Your Estate: Protect Your Loved Ones, Property and Finances 420-427 (Betsy Simmons ed., Nolo 9th ed. 2008).