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Living Will

Topic Overview

A living will is a type of advance directive that documents your wishes about end-of-life medical treatment, including life support, if you become unable to speak for yourself. In most cases, a living will and durable power of attorney for health care, which names a health care agent, are completed at the same time.

Many states have a unique form (for example, they may ask you to address specific issues). Or you might use a universal form that has been approved by many states. This kind of form can sometimes be completed and stored online. Your electronic copy will then be available wherever you have a connection to the Internet. Doctors typically respect your wishes even if you have a form from a different state.

It's a good idea to get your living will notarized, which means to use a notary public to have two people witness your living will.

You do not need an attorney to complete a living will. But legal advice is helpful if your state's laws are unclear, your health history is complex, or there is conflict within your family.

Give your doctor a copy of your living will to keep in your medical record. If you have more than one doctor, make sure that each doctor has a copy. Speak with your doctor and other health professionals to ensure that they understand the words you have used. Make sure that your family members and your health care agent also have copies. Some people may want to put a copy of their advance directive in an envelope on their refrigerator door. If you are using a digital (electronic) copy, be sure your doctor, family members, and health care agent have instructions about how to access it on the Internet.

Keep the following facts in mind when you are considering preparing a living will:

  • You can change or revoke your living will at any time. Review your living will regularly. Many people find that their wishes about medical treatment change over time, even in a few months, as their health changes. You may change the forms to address your specific wishes. If you make significant changes to your living will, complete a new document.
  • Your living will is only used if you can no longer make or communicate decisions for yourself. Normally, one or more doctors must certify that you lack capacity before your living will takes effect.
  • If you become able to speak for yourself again, you can accept or refuse any treatment, no matter what you said in your living will.
  • Some states may limit your right to refuse treatment in certain situations. You may need to specifically state in your advance directive that you do not want artificial hydration and nutrition, such as being fed through a tube.

Be specific when you complete your living will, but avoid being overly specific. Too much detail may limit your health care agent's ability to make decisions as your situation evolves, yet too little detail may not give your agent and family enough guidance in a specific situation. Be sure to talk with your agent about your beliefs and wishes.

  • Although you cannot plan for every possible situation that may arise, some treatments are commonly used in end-of-life situations. These include cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), ventilators, and artificial nutrition (feeding tubes) and fluids.
  • Some types of health problems tend to be more common at the end of life, such as irreversible brain damage or a form of dementia such as Alzheimer's disease.
  • In your living will, include some general information about whether you would want to have certain treatments or to have your life prolonged in certain situations. Talk these situations over with your health care agent, your family, and your doctor.
  • If you have a chronic illness, talk with your doctor about what is likely to happen, what kinds of treatments you may receive, and how you feel about those treatments. Talk to your agent about your wishes based on these discussions.


Current as of: December 8, 2019

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: Anne C. Poinier MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Jean S. Kutner MD, MSPH - Geriatric Medicine, Hospice and Palliative Medicine
Robin L. Fainsinger MBChB, LMCC, CCFP - Palliative Medicine

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