Perspectives

The Importance of Living Will in Today’s New Circumstances

What is a Living Will?
A Living Will is an important health care document in estate planning as it provides clear and unambiguous directions of a person’s healthcare wishes at a time when they cannot speak for themselves. It avoids uncertainty at a time when emotions are naturally high and where family members may have conflicting wishes. It is not a Testamentary Will, as it does not dispose of property or make bequests under State law. The Living Will is both a statement of a person’s wishes and a guide for family and healthcare providers.
Details of a Living Will
The person for whom the Living Will is prepared is called the declarant. This document provides the declarant with the right to direct future medical services at a time when the declarant is unable to speak with or consult with their doctor. The document becomes effective only in an extreme end-of-life situation. In the Living Will the declarant may direct the attending physician not to administer life-sustaining treatment including CPR or technologically provided nutrition and hydration. If such treatment has already started the Living Will may provide that such treatment shall be withdrawn. The document may include a directive of do not resuscitate.
Both the declarant’s attending physician and a second physician must certify that the patient is terminally ill, permanently unconscious, and will not feel pain or discomfort from the withholding or withdrawal of such treatment. Even under this diagnosis it is the agent named by the declarant in the living will, termed the attorney in fact, who ensures that the patient’s wishes are carried out by the healthcare provider and attending physician. It is not healthcare professional who decides to withdraw or withhold treatment. State law typically requires that the attorney in fact be notified of the declarant’s condition. Thus it is important to keep this information updated. Without the Living Will the healthcare provider for the a patient in the extreme terminal condition cannot withdraw or withhold treatment at the request of the family including a spouse or adult child, even if the patient previously expressed this wish verbally.
The form and content of the Living Will must comply with the laws of the jurisdiction where the declarant resides. This often requires two adult witnesses or a notary to witness the signature of the declarant. The declarant must be legally competent to sign and, once signed, the Living Will should be given to both the declarant’s doctor as well as the attorney-in-fact including an alternate if so named. These standards vary by State to State. An attorney should be consulted to assure compliance with the rules of your jurisdiction.
The attorney-in-fact should be someone who knows what the declarant’s wishes, be willing to see that those wishes are carried out, and typically must be 18 years of age or older. This document may be amended or revoked by the declarant. Some states ask an applicant during the driver’s license application process if they have a Living Will. The applicant can request that their driver’s licenses indicate that such a document has been executed or signed.
Why Have a Living Will Now When You Are in Good Health?
Clients will often ask why a Living Will is necessary when they are in good health and do not have a family history of any serious illnesses or diseases. It is a document that, hopefully, is never needed but in the event that than an unexpected catastrophic medical situation occurs it can alleviate uncertainty, disagreements among loved ones and provide the patient’s wishes are followed. We have all heard about situations where family members cannot agree on the wishes of the patient, leading to legal action as the healthcare provider cannot and will not withhold or withdraw treatment if there is no Living Will.
Many people are concerned that it is the healthcare provider who makes the decision to withdraw or withhold treatment but this is not the case. The healthcare providers make the diagnosis and present it to the attorney-in-fact. It is the attorney-in-fact who instructs the healthcare providers, on behalf of the declarant, to withhold withdraw treatment
Some years ago a case in Florida made national news concerning a young married woman who had been in a coma for several years and whose doctors determined that she would not recover and would remain in a permanent vegetative state. Her husband attempted to have the doctors remove her from the respirator but her parents intervened and after protracted and expensive litigation the court determined that the respirator could be removed. She passed away 13 days later. A Living Will is a very personal and important document that can avoid years of uncertainty and conflict as to what a person’s medical wishes might be. It allows the individual to dictate what their treatment and healthcare would be in this very extreme medical situation.
If you have any questions or concerns about this paperwork please consult your attorney. In this time of widespread disease it is a crucial document that can easily be drafted to comply with State regulations, protect and ensure that an individual’s healthcare wishes are carried out, and provide family and friends with clear and unambiguous directions end-of-life situation.