Everyone is familiar with a last will, the document that allows a person to decide what happens to their estate after they pass. Far less well known, however, is a living will, the document that allows a person to decide what happens when they are put into a state that requires life support to keep them alive. In this article, we’ll uncover what a living will is, why they are created and how they work. Then we will review a basic checklist for creating a living will so that you can assist your loved one in creating one for themselves. Read on to find out more.
What Are Living Wills and Why Are They Created?
A living will is a legal document that allows a sick or elderly person to determine their medical preferences if they succumb to illness and are nearing their end of life. More specifically, living wills are for situations where a person needs to be put on life support in order to live, and addresses important medical preferences relating to life support. These preferences pertain to whether the patient wants tube-feeding, artificial hydration, pain medication, or breathing tubes, if and when necessary.
As a response to the increasing sophistication and prevalence of advanced medical devices, living wills were created to prevent confusion regarding a patient’s wishes regarding life-prolonging treatment. Because doctors and hospital staff are legally required to keep a patient alive through whatever means necessary (life support), living wills are created to counter these decisions if a patient does not want to be kept alive artificially. Living wills thus allow patients to opt out of life supporting treatment options (CPR, mechanical ventilation, dialysis, tube feeding, etc.) if they are uncomfortable or feel that life support may lead to unnecessary pain or discomfort.
How Do Living Wills Work Once Created?
Again, in situations where your loved one (the patient) is unable to communicate their medical desires, doctors or hospital staff are legally obliged to do whatever it takes to keep them alive. This includes putting them on life support and taking other steps that your loved one may not want. If a living will was created that specifically expresses their wishes to refrain from life support or specific medical-enhancing procedures, you or other family members can communicate your loved one’s wishes while using the legal authority of the living will as testament. Keep in mind, however, that only when a patient cannot physically communicate their medical desires does this take effect.
How To Create A Living Will: A Checklist
Make A List Of What Your Loved One Wants
In its simplest form, living wills are simply lists of medical procedures your loved one does not want in the event that they are reduced to a vegetative medical state and require life support to stay alive. Thus, the first step in creating a will is simply deciding your loved one’s medical preferences for their end-of-life treatment and documenting them in a simple list. For example, your loved one may want to express that they only wish to have procedures that make them more comfortable, however refrain from treatment options that merely prolong life and the potential risk of inflicting pain. More specifically, your loved one may want to opt for tube feeding or dialysis but abstain from the use of a ventilator.
Your loved one’s will should cover all possible end-of-life care decisions including:
- Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)
- Mechanical ventilation
- Tube feeding
- Antibiotics or antiviral medications
- Palliative care
- Organ and tissue donations
- Donating one’s body to science
Obviously, your loved one’s preferences will vary depending on their beliefs, wishes and comfort level, so it’s important to consider these factors when making these decisions. Your loved one may also want to consider consulting with other family members, doctors, and other medical experts to make the best possible decisions regarding their end-of-life treatment.
Research State’s Laws
The second step in making a living will is to investigate any relevant state laws pertaining to living wills. Most states require that a living will to be signed by someone who is of sound mind and 18 years of age or older in order to be considered valid. However, different states may have different (more specific) regulations to determine the legitimacy of a will. For example, some states require that the will is also signed by witnesses who can testify that your loved one was of sound mind (and not under coercion) when the will was signed. You and your loved one can find state-based information regarding will legislation online or through a local lawyer with experience in elder law or estate planning.
Document the Will
A recurring problem in many end-of-life situations is that neither the doctor nor the patients family members know that a will exists (making it impossible to make the appropriate decisions). Thus, it is very important that you ensure that your loved one’s doctor has several copies of an official, documented will that has been signed. Also be sure to keep several in an easy to access, secure and preferably fireproof, place. In the event that your loved one is checking in to a hospital for a major (potentially life threatening) medical procedure or goes to a hospital for an emergency, ensure that their medical proxy (see below) has a (laminated) copy with them at all times.
Note: You can also look into whether your state has an online living will registry. This can allow you to upload a file of your loved ones will for safekeeping with the state department of health.
Speak To Harbor Light Hospice For More Information
For more information or assistance completing your loved ones will, contact Harbor Light Hospice today. Our staff has extensive experience assisting patients and loved one document living will and will be happy to assist you in your loved one’s end of life treatment preparation.