A living will is a document in which a person states his or her desires regarding medical treatment in certain circumstances. It is also referred to as a declaration regarding life-prolonging procedures, an advance directive or simply a declaration. Without a living will, doctors and hospitals may decide they are legally obligated to perform certain procedures that you may not desire, if you become seriously ill and are unable to communicate your desires.
The first living wills created simply provided a basic statement that the person did not want to be kept alive by machines or other artificial means if he or she had a terminal illness or injury. These documents did not include the appointment of any kind of agent. Since the person was expressing his or her wishes in writing, there was no need to appoint an agent to present the person's wishes.
As individual states developed laws permitting living wills, they came to include other serious situations, such as if the person is in a permanent coma. They also sometimes include the appointment of another person to assure that the living will is carried out. This person does not have the same powers as under a health care power of attorney, because his or her authority is limited to the types of medical conditions specified in the living will.
It is a good idea to have a living will and a health care power of attorney. If you only have a health care power of attorney and end up unable to communicate and express your wishes further, your agent will be relying on what you have said about what you want. If another family member disagrees with your agent's decision, your ultimate fate can end up in the hands of a judge. However, if you have expressed your wishes in a living will, your agent has written evidence to support his or her decision.