Living Wills

A living will is one form of an "advance directive," meaning you are telling your loved ones and others in advance how you wish to be treated in the event of a terminal or life-threatening illness. They are recognized in all 50 states.

What is a "living will"?

A living will is a written and signed document by you stating whether you wish to be kept alive using artificial means in the event a doctor declares your death to be imminent. Doctors are legally bound to follow this directive. Some states require you to use specific language. For example, North Carolina requires you to state that you do not want doctors to use artificial means, including feeding and hydrating, to keep you alive in the event of a terminal illness or if you are in a persistent vegetative state, and that you know that your living will means that your doctor can withhold or stop medical treatment, including food and water.

Sidebar: Many states also require that the document be signed by a specific number of witnesses and notarized or certified.

What is a "durable power of attorney for health care"?

A durable power of attorney for health care designates someone to make health care decisions for you in the event that you become incapacitated. About half of the states allow this person to make a decision concerning ending life support treatment. Other states will not allow this person to make this decision unless you have previously clearly and convincingly indicated your wish not to receive artificial support to prolong your life.

TIP: Make sure the person to whom you give this power is trustworthy and will carry out your wishes. He or she may have to deal with doctors and family members who disagree with your choices.

Should I have both a living will and a durable power of attorney for health care?

You can have both. The living will is directed to the doctors and the durable power of attorney for health care gives another person the power to make health care decisions in the event of your incapacity.

TIP: To make your decision clear, it is best to have both. You may want to outline all of your particular desires in order to avoid any misunderstandings.

What is the difference between a power of attorney and a durable power of attorney?

A power of attorney lasts only as long as you remain competent. In the event you become incapacitated or disabled, a power of attorney is no longer effective. On the other hand, a durable power of attorney survives through your incapacity or disability. So, a durable power of attorney lasts longer. For elderly Americans, durable powers of attorney will most of the time be a better choice.

Can my family members or I change or revoke these documents?

You always have the right to change your mind. Tear up the old living will and create a new one stating that you do (or do not) wish to be kept alive by artificial means. Be sure to give the new document to the same people you gave the first one to.

Someone acting on your behalf, such as a guardian, can also revoke your living will or durable power of attorney for health care. This does not mean an adult child can revoke the documents because he or she does not agree with the decisions you made. Make sure all or your family members know your wishes before you become incapacitated.

Who should I tell about these documents, and where should they be kept?

Give one signed copy to your doctor. This way he or she will know your wishes beforehand. Provide another copy to the person you have designated to serve as the executor of your estate. Also give copies to family members and your pastor or rabbi. Keep the original in a safe place with your other important documents such as your will.

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