A living will sets out what you want to happen at the time of a final illness or life-threatening event. It can be as integral to your estate plan as a last will and testament and it’s not difficult to write. Like a health care power of attorney, it goes into effect when and if you become incapacitated to the point where you can’t state your own wishes for care. Unlike with a POA, you must also be beyond hope of recovery before the document can affect the situation.
Decide Health Care Options
You can’t write a living will until you decide how you want physicians to handle your final illness or life-ending event. Do you want hospital staff to prolong your life if there’s no hope for recovery? Or would you prefer they allow you to die? If so, you must decide how they should do that. It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing decision -- you can state that you don’t want to be placed on certain life support equipment but you do want intravenous nourishment or medication to reduce your pain. These may not be snap decisions. Take time to think it over and perhaps discuss your thoughts with your loved ones. Living wills can be revoked if you have a change of heart.
Get the Proper Form
You don’t need a lawyer to draft your living will, although many lawyers will include them when they prepare “will packages” -- a last will and testament along with other estate-planning documents. Most states have statutory forms you can complete that conform to the law in that jurisdiction. You can usually get one from your physician or local hospital, or call your state’s medical association. The form will probably include a lot of medical and legal terminology that you may not understand. You might want to take it to a lawyer or to your doctor for an explanation of the terms you’ve selected.
Give Copies to Those Who Will Need Them
When you’re sure your living will says what you want it to say, find out if you must simply sign it or your state requires it to be notarized -- if notarization is required, the form should have a space for the notary’s signature and stamp at the end. Make copies and give one to anyone who will need one if you should fall ill or have an accident, such as your doctor, spouse or children. If you’re single and don’t have children or they’re minors, you might give a copy to your best friend in case of emergency and put your own copy with your other important papers.
Add a Power of Attorney
A living will can only govern the situation if you would die without life support or extraordinary measures. In fact, many states require that your doctor or other hospital staff certify this is the case before the terms of your living will can be honored. If you’re merely unconscious and unable to express your wishes, your living will has no effect because there’s an expectation that you might recover. You can also write a health care power of attorney to address this type of situation, naming someone to make decisions for you if you can’t. Just make sure the person you select knows what you would want in such situations.