Written By : Rachel Christian
Edited By : Kim Borwick
This page features 8 Cited Research Articles
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A living will is an estate planning tool designed to give you control over medical decisions if you become incapacitated. It tells others if you want to use treatments like breathing machines and feeding tubes to prolong your life. Living wills are often paired with a durable medical power of attorney to create what’s known as an advance directive. Living will forms are available in many places, including at hospitals and online.

No one likes to think about death. It’s unpleasant, depressing and often frightening. Honoring a person’s final wishes — especially those unable to speak for themselves — has led to widespread legislation in the United States over the last 50 years.

Living wills emerged in the 1960s as a way to ensure appropriate treatment was provided when a patient was incapacitated. An attorney named Luis Kutner was the first to suggest a living will in 1967 to enable “the rights of dying people to control decisions about their own medical care.”

Bills at the state level followed throughout the 1970s and 1980s. By 1992, all 50 states had passed some kind of legislation on living wills and advance directives.

Today, less than 30 percent of U.S. adults have executed a living will, according to a 2016 study published in Health Affairs. Researchers found that people with chronic illnesses were only slightly more likely than healthy people to write down their end-of-life wishes.

A living will can make the right decision easier for loved ones and help families avoid disputes. They act like roadmaps with guiding principles, but they can’t predict every scenario. That’s why communication is key. Family members and caregivers should be aware of your preferences whether you have a living will or not.

What Is a Living Will?

A living will explains what end-of-life care you want — or don’t want.

Even though the term “will” is in the name, a living will is very different from a last will and testament, which determines what happens to your estate after you pass away. A living will, on the other hand, specifies what you want done if an accident or illness renders you incapacitated and unable to make important medical decisions. It is only used if someone is terminally ill, unconscious or close to death.

Common Situations When Living Wills Are Used
  • Coma
  • Persistent vegetative state
  • Stroke
  • Severe brain injury
  • Advanced dementia

Living wills are usually partnered with a medical power of attorney to create what’s known as an advance directive.

An advance directive can include any of the following:
  • A living will
  • A “do not resuscitate” form, or DNR
  • Medical power of attorney
  • Physician orders for life-sustaining treatment (POLST)

Living wills can be beneficial at any age. Even young people can be severely injured in accidents and left in vegetative states for years if they do not communicate care preferences. At the very least, experts recommend everyone appoint a trusted person to make important medical decisions on their behalf.

Choosing a Medical Power of Attorney

It can be difficult to make choices about future care when you don’t know what the future holds. That’s why a medical power of attorney is important.

A medical power of attorney appoints a person to make critical health care decisions on your behalf if you are unable to do so. This person is called an agent or health care proxy. Your proxy can be a spouse, adult child, relative, friend, religious figure or legal professional.

The person you pick should know how you feel about life-saving treatments and medical care. He or she should be willing to ask questions and advocate on your behalf to your health care team. You should talk with this person before making a final selection to ensure he or she is comfortable with the responsibility. It’s also advisable to designate an alternative health care proxy.

You should list a power of attorney as “durable.” Otherwise, your appointed agent won’t be able to make decisions if you become incapacitated.

Power of attorney authority is broad but not absolute. For example, your proxy can no longer make decisions on your behalf If you recover and regain your faculties. While you are still competent, you can always change your proxy or revoke the directive.

A medical power of attorney may not be a good idea if there is no one in your life that you trust to make these decisions for you.

POLSTs & DNRs

A Do-Not-Resuscitate (DNR) form is a medical order that lets health care professionals know if you want life-saving measures performed if you stop breathing. This can include mouth-to-mouth and pressing on the chest, electric shock to restart the heart, breathing tubes and medication.

Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) is a set of medical orders generally used near the end of life or when a person is critically ill. It is like a DNR, but it also includes preferences on other end-of-life care.

While a living will is a legal document, a POLST is a medical order signed by your doctor.

A POLST form does not replace a living will but instead is sometimes added after a person is diagnosed with a serious illness or frailty.

Without a POLST, emergency personnel are required to provide every possible life-saving treatment option. For example, if you are a terminal cancer patient who collapses at home, you may not want paramedics to take you to the hospital, but instead make you comfortable where you are. A POLST can address this.

Your doctor can help you fill out DNR or POLST forms and put them in your medical chart. Doctors and hospitals in all states accept DNRs. Most, but not all, accept POLSTs.

You can always change your mind and request CPR, even if you have a DNR or POLST form on file.

Considerations for Creating a Living Will

Thinking about death is never pleasant, but it’s necessary as you construct a living will. You will ask yourself many questions during this process, but an especially important one to consider is: What makes life worth living to you?

Your answer may be governed by your religious or moral beliefs. It may be influenced by past personal experience.

You need to consider whether you want certain treatments, and if so, under what circumstances. Would you want to be on a ventilator if there were a chance for recovery? What if it kept you alive but unable to communicate with others? How long would you want it to last? Are there only certain situations under which you would consider it?

Devices such as ventilators and feeding tubes can be used to save lives by allowing a body time to heal. At the end of life, however, these measures may do little more than prolong death and raise even more questions about quantity versus quality of life.

Below is a list of potential life-prolonging measures.

End-Of-Life Decisions
  • Artificial respiration (ventilators)
  • Feeding tubes
  • Dialysis
  • Relief for pain, nausea, or other symptoms (also known as comfort care)
  • Organ donation
  • Resuscitation if breathing or heartbeat stops

Your views on these treatments may change throughout your life. Your perspective may shift, depending on your health. For example, views on end-of-life care may be radically different for a healthy 30-year-old than for an 80-year-old person with stage-four cancer.

Talk About Your Decisions and Beliefs

Living will decisions can be emotional, even painful. Talk to your physician about the medical aspect of your wishes. They can give you pros and cons of each option along with insight on how treatments may affect your current medical conditions.

It’s also vital to talk about end-of-life care with your proxy and loved ones. They should be familiar with your beliefs, morals and attitudes.

If you’re unsure how to broach the subject or what to say, a nonprofit group may be able to help.

An organization called the Conversation Project launched in 2010 to help families initiate these important talks. The nonprofit was created by Ellen Goodman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who served as caretaker to her mother with Alzheimer’s disease for many years.

The Conversation Project offers a starter kit on its website to help people think about the best time, place and way to discuss end-of-life plans with family. It suggests trying icebreakers such as: “I need to think about the future. Will you help me?”

After that, it’s important to communicate early and often. The organization notes that It’s best to have your first conversation about end-of-life care at the kitchen table, not the intensive care unit.

How to Create a Living Will

You can create a living will and advance directive in many ways.

Where to Find Forms
  • Your doctor’s office or hospital
  • Your health department or Council on Aging
  • A lawyer
  • Online through an estate planning website

The National Institute on Aging notes that most communities in the United States have a Council on Aging or similar senior citizen resource center. Staff at these agencies can help you gather forms and answer questions about your advance directive.

You can find the phone number for your local agency by calling the Eldercare Locator at 800-677-1116 or by visiting the Eldercare Locator website.

Each state’s Bar Association website also usually makes these forms available.

Many people create a living will as part of retirement planning but you don’t need a lawyer to create a living will. Most states require at least one witness on an advance directive form, and some also require a notarized signature. State laws and courts determine the validity of these documents.

You can find living will forms online. These templates are usually comprehensive and allow you to list the names of your physicians along with emergency contact numbers. State laws change often, so make sure the living will form online is current.

According to the American Bar Association, a living will is legally effective but not legally binding. This means medical staff and family members can reinterpret them.

“The question of what is ‘legally effective’ is misleading because even a legally effective document does not automatically carry out your wishes,” the association’s website notes. “The best strategy is to combine talking and documenting.”

If you decide to write your own living will, it will be beneficial for a doctor or legal professional to review it. They can ensure that directives comply with state laws and your intentions are clearly understood.

Make Copies and Update Your Living Will

Once you have completed your living will, give copies of your advance directive to your doctor and health care proxy. There is no guarantee that papers will follow you if you are transferred to a different health care facility. You or your proxy need to double-check and make sure medical staff knows your wishes and have copies of your directive.

Organizations like the National Institute of Health even suggest making a card to carry in your wallet so others know you have an advance directive and where it is located.

It’s beneficial to review your documents every 10 years or if your current medical condition changes.

Terminology You Should Know
Advance Directive
A legal document that goes into effect only if you are incapacitated and unable to speak for yourself. This could be the result of disease or severe injury. It combines a living will and medical power of attorney.
Health Care Proxy
A person who is given authority through a power of attorney to make medical decisions on another person’s behalf. Also called an agent.
Living Will
A document detailing a person’s wishes for medical care if they become incapacitated.
Durable Power of Attorney
A document that appoints a trusted individual (called an agent) to make health care decisions on someone else’s behalf when that person is unable to do so themselves.
POLST
Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment. A set of medical orders that addresses key critical care decisions that reflect a patient’s goals of care.
Last Modified: April 21, 2020

8 Cited Research Articles

  1. American Cancer Society. (2019, May 13). Types of Directives. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org/treatment/finding-and-paying-for-treatment/understanding-financial-and-legal-matters/advance-directives/types-of-advance-health-care-directives.html
  2. Andrews, M. (2017, September 2). Many Avoid End-Of-Life Care Planning, Study Finds. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/08/02/540669492/many-avoid-end-of-life-care-planning-study-finds
  3. The Conversation Project. (n.d.). Starter Kits. Retrieved from https://theconversationproject.org/starter-kits/
  4. National Institute on Aging. (2018, January 15). Advance Care Planning: Healthcare Directives. Retrieved from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/advance-care-planning-healthcare-directives
  5. National Institute on Aging. (2017, May 17). Understanding Healthcare Decisions at the End of Life. Retrieved from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/understanding-healthcare-decisions-end-life
  6. National POLST Paradigm. (n.d.). POLST & Advance Directives. Retrieved from https://polst.org/polst-and-advance-directives/
  7. Sabatino, C. (2018, October 15). Myths and Facts About Health Care Advance Directives. Retrieved from https://www.americanbar.org/groups/law_aging/publications/bifocal/vol_37/issue_1_october2015/myths_and_facts_advance_directives/
  8. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2018, February 2). Do-not-resuscitate order. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000473.htm