A living will is a document you draft that stipulates what kind of treatment you want or don't want in the event of an unrecoverable illness or injury that leaves you unable to speak for yourself. It gives you the power to refuse extraordinary measures that would keep your body alive when there is no hope of recovery, and when you would choose, if able, to die a natural death.
People have differing attitudes and beliefs about what constitutes life and quality of life. For some, their religious beliefs dictate that any form of life is sacred and should be preserved as long as is humanly possible. Others believe life ends when the brain ceases to function and that life-support in this state is a form of dehumanization and a burden on loved ones, emotionally and economically.
A living will allows you to make your desires known on this issue. Without a living will or advance directive, it is incumbent on the hospital or healthcare facility to continue to provide life support, unless a spouse comes forward to relay your (unwritten) wishes and ask that life-support be suspended. If there is no spouse, the closest living relative can speak for you. However, requests to stop life-support without a living will or advance directive in place can be met with resistance by other family members, friends, and even unaffiliated parties with political agendas, including members of government. This was no better illustrated than in the Terri Schiavo case brought to the public's attention in 2005.
Terri Schiavo was a young woman in 1990 when her heart stopped from an episode believed brought on by an eating disorder. Schiavo was resuscitated but suffered permanent brain damage that left her in a persistent vegetative state. She did not have a living will but was survived by a husband who, after several years, requested the cessation of life support efforts. Schiavo's parents contested and a legal battle ensued for seven years. This unfortunate human drama culminated in 2005, exacerbated by political theocratic pandering. The emotional pain surrounding Terri Schiavo's 15-year tragedy could have been avoided by a living will.
A living will only comes into play when multiple conditions have been met. The will must be legal and in the possession of your doctor. Your doctor must further find that your condition precludes you from making a competent decision about the care you wish to receive. Lastly, a second doctor must concur and both physicians must also find you to be terminally ill or permanently unconscious.
Living wills can be drafted by lawyers, via software programs, or by simply writing out your wishes and desires; it's best to follow an official form as the language will not leave room for ambiguity, and laws that regulate living wills vary from state to state. The document required a signature and the signing should be witnessed by two people who also lend their signatures as proof. Alternately, you can have it officially notarized. A copy should be given to your doctor to be kept in your file. If at any time you change your mind about the conditions you set forth for yourself, you are free to retrieve and destroy all copies of the existing will, and replace it with a newly drafted and notarized document.
Though the task of making a living will may not be a joyous one, it is not only in your best interest but in the best interest of loved ones. An advance directive also allows you to stipulate what kind of medical care you wish to receive, or do not wish to receive, and can be as detailed and specific as you like. A durable power of attorney (DPA) will allow you to legally appoint a trusted partner, family member or friend to make medical decisions for you, should you become unable. A DPA is especially wise for unmarried couples, single people, or those whose partners are deceased. Laws regarding these documents vary between states, so check with your local physician or healthcare facility to see what documents you can submit for your own protection and peace of mind.
A living will does not allocate property rights or estate, which is covered in a standard will, often referred to as the last will and testament.