What is a living will?

A living will is one of several terms that refer to documents by which an individual expresses instructions and desires about healthcare and medical treatment. It's generally used in situations when the individual can no longer make their own decision (i.e. incapacitated). Other terms for living wills may include "Advance Health Care Directive," “medical directive,” “health care directive,” “declaration,” and “directive to physicians.”

Why set up a living will?

A living will allows you to make certain decisions regarding healthcare and medical treatments in advance so your choices can be carried out even if you are unconscious or unable to make a decision at some later time.  

Who is included in a living will?

A living will may also be combined with a medical power of attorney, which lets you designate one or more individuals to make healthcare and medical decisions for you if you are unable to make these decisions yourself. This designation may be done in the living will document or in a separate document. These designated individuals may be known as “agents,” “attorneys-in-fact,” “proxies,” “surrogates,” or other similar terms. 

Agents may be given the power to authorize or withhold treatment, make decisions for you regarding healthcare, and/or make decisions regarding life-sustaining treatment. The powers of an agent may help fill the gaps when your living will do not cover a specific medical condition or treatment option.

Who should set up a living will?

Everyone should have a living will. Even if you are young and healthy, you never know when an accident or illness may strike and leave you unable to make decisions for yourself. 

What happens if I don't have a living will?

If something were to happen, and you were incapacitated, there could be disputes or even litigation over your medical condition and treatment. Doctors may be required to keep you on life support and administer treatments, even if these would go against your (undocumented) wishes. Your family and loved ones may be left helpless and unable to control your treatment. Or worse, a dispute may arise in your family, compounding the burdens facing your family. 

Creating a living will and naming agents to make healthcare and medical decisions can avoid these issues and can give you the opportunity to make your preferences and desires known.
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