Using Your Living Will

Using Your Living Will

Knowing what to do with a living will is just as important as having one. Take the following two examples of common circumstances in which a living will had little effect because the person writing it did not tell his or her family about it.

Example 1: Betty reads a magazine article telling her she needs a living will. She has one prepared, stating that she does not want any artificial life support provided if she is ever in a terminal condition, and signs it. Figuring that she should keep it with her other important papers, she puts it in her safe-deposit box. She never mentions the living will to anyone. Eight months later, Betty is in a serious car accident. She is brought to the hospital unconscious and it quickly becomes obvious to the emergency room doctor that her injuries are so severe that she will never regain consciousness. She will die soon unless she is hooked up to machines to keep her heart and lungs working. Her living will clearly states that she does not want to be hooked up to the machines, but since her living will is locked up in her safe-deposit box, no one is aware of her wishes. Betty is hooked up to the machines with the permission of her daughter.

Example 2: Alternately, Betty's living will states that she wants all efforts made to preserve her life. Betty lives in a state that allows a spouse or an adult child to make this type of decision for a person who cannot communicate his or her desires. Again, her living will is locked in her safe-deposit box, and no one knows her wishes. Betty's daughter tells the doctor not to connect Betty to the machines, believing this to be what Betty would want.

As you can see, it is important that certain people are aware of your living will and have access to it. Exactly who you provide with a copy will depend on whether you also have a health care power of attorney.

  • 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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