While many people understand what a last will and testament are, they don’t always realize a living will is a separate document with different functions. Both are important in estate planning, and both should be carefully located somewhere that’s accessible to the people who will need them. However, a living will has a particular urgency that makes its accessibility even more important. Here’s what you need to know.
What Is a Living Will?
A living will, which is a type of advance medical directive, doesn’t deal with the distribution of assets in an estate the way a traditional last will and testament does. Instead, it’s designed to make known the medical wishes and preferences of the person who draws it up. It’s done so that in the event that that person becomes unable to speak or is unconscious, their wishes are clearly available for medical staff and close family to understand and implement.
Among the issues that can be covered in a living will are:
- Types of medical intervention you would or would not want to be used. That can include treatments such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to restart the heart if it stops beating (either manually or with a device that uses an electric shock).
- Mechanical intervention meant to prolong life. These can include mechanical ventilation to manage breathing, intravenous tube feeding to provide water and nutrients if you’re unable to eat or drink, or dialysis to manage kidney functions when the kidneys are no longer working. You can specify whether or not you want any of these measures taken, and if you do want them, when and for how long you’d want to receive them.
- Medications to treat infections. If you are close to the end of your life, you can stipulate that such medications not be used to prolong life, allowing the infections to run their course.
- Palliative care interventions. These are choices you can make regarding things such as receiving pain medications but not treatment medications, the wish to die at home rather than a hospital or nursing facility, or stopping various invasive tests and treatments. Palliative care is usually designed to keep a person as comfortable as possible while not prolonging their life through extraordinary measures.
- Donation. A living will allows you to specify if you would like to donate organs and tissues or donate your body for scientific study. If you want to donate organs and tissue, it’s a good idea to specify in the living will that you understand that you might be kept alive while the organs and tissues are being collected, otherwise there could be confusion if you’ve otherwise stated you don’t want to be kept alive.
What About Do Not Resuscitate or Do Not Intubate?
Do not resuscitate (DNR) and do not intubate (DNI) orders can be included in a living will, although they don’t have to be. This is something you can discuss with your doctor, who should have the appropriate forms you could fill out. Then the doctor can have them put into your medical records.
Who Will Carry Out My Living Will?
This is an important part of drawing up a living will: The person who will enforce it. Sometimes known as a health care agent, this person is responsible for ensuring your wishes, as specified in the living will, are adhered to by medical teams and by family members. In general, the person you choose must be an adult. It should be someone you trust to understand and carry out your wishes. If you have family members who may be opposed to your wishes, the healthcare agent should be someone who is willing to stand firm and not give in to pressure.
The person you choose doesn’t have to live in California, but they should be able and willing to travel to your bedside if needed. Above all, you should discuss this role in depth with whomever you choose, so they’re aware ahead of time of your wishes and are ready to abide by them.
Where Should I Keep My Living Will?
Given how important a living will is, especially with family members who disagree with your choices, where you keep a living will is nearly as important as having it in the first place. There are multiple places that a living will should be kept with the goal of having it immediately available when the time comes (and that means making multiple copies).
- Your healthcare agent. The person carrying out the will should have a copy.
- Your doctor. They should know your wishes, and they should also ensure the living will is part of all your medical and hospital records.
- Your attorney. In the event that there’s dissent in your family, your attorney should have a legally binding copy.
- In your home or with you. Keep a copy at home and, if possible, with you any time you leave home.
One place not to keep a copy: Your safety deposit box at a bank. This will not be accessible until you’ve passed and your estate is settled.
What Should I Do if I Need Help Setting Up a Living Will?
Call us at 916-685-1225 for a free consultation. A living will is an important document that can ensure your wishes are honored when you can no longer specify them. It can also reduce stress among family members by not leaving them to decide what they think you would have wanted.