The Law Concerning Living Wills

The Law Concerning Living Wills

The basics of the law concerning living wills is fairly simple. By signing a living will, you are telling your family, friends, doctors, hospitals, and other health care providers what type of health care you want (or do not want) in certain situations.

The basic reason for having a living will is so a third party—usually a doctor or hospital—will perform your wishes if you become terminally ill, injured or permanently unconscious. The concern of the doctor is that he or she may be held liable, either civilly or criminally, for not performing a medical procedure that some could argue would have allowed you to live longer. Many states have passed laws that allow a doctor to honor a living will without being subject to any liability. These laws also provide that other people may rely on your wishes as expressed in your living will and will not be legally responsible for honoring those wishes.

Example: You state in your living will that you do not want artificial life support procedures used if your condition is terminal. Your doctor will not be subject to a lawsuit by your estate or family for discontinuing life support procedures. Without a living will, the doctor or hospital may be reluctant to discontinue such artificial life support procedures.

Even if you have a living will, it is important that you discuss your wishes with your spouse, family members or friends, so that someone is fully aware of how you feel. This may help resolve any disputes that may arise about your wishes regarding your medical care.

Some states have laws that authorize certain family members to make these life and death health care decisions even without a living will. However, it will probably be easier for your family members to make such decisions if they are certain how you feel about the subject. A living will can clearly express your desires. 

  • Introduction to Living Wills
    Modern life support systems can keep an individual's body alive for years, even if that person has no brain activity or is in constant pain. As competent adults, we have a constitutional right to make decisions about whether or not we want life support to continue when death is imminent or when a...
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  • Definition of a Living Will
    A living will is a document that outlines specific medical instructions to be applied if you are alive but are unable to communicate your wishes for yourself. Unlike last wills, they have nothing to do with property division after your death. Rather, they state that you do (or do not) want...
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  • Healthcare Power of Attorney
    A healthcare agent is a person whom you are trusting to make medical decisions on your behalf if you can't make them for yourself. Choosing your agent is an important decision, and you should think carefully about who you want to assume this responsibility. This person may one day be deciding...
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  • Revoking or Canceling a Living Will
    A living will can be canceled or revoked at any time. The revocation is effective when you (or someone else who witnessed your revocation) communicate it to your attending physician or healthcare provider. You can also cancel your living will by destroying it or by indicating, in writing, that it...
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  • Witnesses to a Living Will
    Because of the gravity of the decisions associated with a living will and the potential severity of the results, a living will must be witnessed by individuals who can swear that the document reflects the maker's wishes. These witnesses must be independent, and can't have an interest in receiving...
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  • Pregnancy and Living Wills
    Most state laws will not let you (or someone acting on your behalf) refuse life-extending medical procedures if you are pregnant. In such cases, your living will can be disregarded, unless there is no chance the fetus will survive.    
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