Should You Have a Living Will?

Law Blog

One of the most important steps you can take to prepare for an unexpected medical emergency is to complete a living will. Unfortunately, about 75 percent of people do not have a living will. If you are one of them, what can happen if you don't have a living will?

Advance Healthcare Directives

A living will is an advance healthcare directive that specifies your medical wishes in the event that you are unconscious and unable to communicate. Without a living will to guide their actions, medical personnel will use their professional judgment and expertise to determine what healthcare procedures to use on your behalf.

Even if you are in an irreversible coma or a long-lasting vegetative condition, doctors are legally-required to follow specific medical procedures unless you have completed a living will that spells out what life-sustaining treatment you want. For example, your living will could state that you do not want any medical treatment beyond normal comfort care if you are in an unconscious state.

With a living will in place, your physicians will be legally required to honor your wishes. Without a living will, your personal preferences will not be taken into account when medical personnel are treating you.

A living will does not need to designate who your caregivers will be. Your living will is designed to apply to whoever is taking care of you. For example, if you are traveling with your spouse and something happens to you, a living will will be effective if a copy is provided to the healthcare facility.

Living wills can be as specific as you want. According to the Harvard Medical School, here are five medical procedures covered in many living will documents:

  • Defibrillation (electric shock)
  • Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)
  • Mechanical ventilation
  • Artificial hydration and nutrition
  • Intravenous pressors (medication for elevating blood pressure)

What to Do Next About Your Living Will

You should discuss the terms of a living will with your doctor, family members and a wills lawyer. Medical experts can help you decide which medical procedures to include or exclude from your living will.

For example, CPR can often cause extensive injuries as a life-sustaining measure and many individuals specify that they do not want CPR to be applied during cardiac arrest. This advance care directive is usually referred to as a DNR or "do not resuscitate."

Keep in mind that a living will is meant to communicate your wishes when you are unable to do so. If you are conscious and want to change your mind, you can execute a new living will to replace the original one.


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