Here’s a question you may not want to think about. Do you know what will happen to you if you were to suddenly fall terminally ill or go unconscious? There are a lot of laws that kick in when you become too incapacitated to make decisions about yourself. Some of these decisions may be against your wishes. That’s why creating a living will is so important. However, only about a third of Americans have one.
If you’re wondering what is a living will, let’s explain it. It is a legal document that tells others what your wishes are should you become so ill that you cannot communicate your wishes. These documents are also called advance directives. This document isn’t about distributing your goods. That’s what a regular will is for. Instead, it’s instructions about how you want your medical care to proceed when you can’t make choices.
Without a living will, doctors are allowed to use their full powers to try to keep you alive. When there are questions about care, they will defer to your next-of-kin or to their own judgment. This may not be what you want. End-of-life care can involve aggressive treatments such as using ventilators, feeding tubes, and other invasive procedures that you may not want to experience. Furthermore, these treatments are expensive and could put an undue burden on your estate.
Another thing that a living will can reveal is your wishes on emergency treatment. A DNR order (short for “do not resuscitate”) orders doctors not to do procedures such as CPR or cardiac life support should you stop breathing or your heart stops beating. Furthermore, a DNR on file will prevent your family from forcing the doctors to perform such procedures. When you get a living will, choosing to have this order or not is an important part of the process.
Finally, there are issues of palliative care. In the context of a living will, it is the actions that are used to make you and your family more comfortable as you approach the end of your life. Depending on your feelings and beliefs, you may not want some kinds of palliative care. For instance, you may not want to use opioid painkillers or receive additional surgeries that may lower pain but will not cure you. There are many factors that go into a palliative care treatment plan with complex questions to think about.
Many people don’t like thinking about these things. While most don’t believe they’ll live forever, we often push death to some distant point in the future. Having documents like a living will seems unimportant. However, the consequences of not having one can be severe. Instead of living the end of your life on your own terms, your care will be done according to the law and to current medical ethics.
Even if you want doctors to do everything they can to save your life, having a living will on record lets doctors work with confidence and be able to override the wishes of your family who might assume they know what you want. Fortunately, it’s easy to get a living will. There are kits available to help you make one, or you can talk with an estate planning lawyer. Once you have one, keep a copy for yourself and give copies to your family and to your physicians.