Who Really Needs a Living Will?

With end-of-life issues in the news this year, you may be thinking about whether you and other family members should have a living will—a document that states what type of death-delaying medical treatment you want or don’t want if you develop an incurable, irreversible condition and can’t communicate your wishes.

The short answer? Yes, say the experts.

Anybody over the age of 18, or the age of majority in their state, should have a living will. Parents of minors have the right to make decisions about their children’s medical treatment, but children over 18 can make their wishes known in a living will.

Unfortunately, many people still have misconceptions about what a living will does. People feel hospitals withhold treatment that would prevent them from recovering, but living wills don’t take effect unless a patient has no hope of recovery.

Setting it up

Living will forms are available at hospitals, online through many state departments of health, and through various non-profit organizations. Although the forms are usually simple enough to complete without legal help, you will need two witnesses; doctors and other hospital workers aren’t eligible to serve as witnesses.

Still, a living will is only the first step in making sure your wishes for medical treatment in a terminal condition are carried out. Equally important, experts say, is naming a power of attorney for health care, or someone who will help make health-care decisions if you are unable to. Often, it’s more important to document our decision-makers than our decisions because unanticipated questions can arise.

Talking it up

While many people are reluctant to make their wishes known because they don’t like to talk about death, asking someone to sign your living will can be a good opener to a touchy subject.

Keep in mind that while initiating a conversation about living wills can be difficult, expressing your wishes can avoid even more painful conversations among family members later. A living will is a precious gift to give your family to ease them of that decision burden.