Imagine a man who was in a serious accident with injuries so severe that he was being kept alive by a respirator and a feeding tube. His family has been at his bedside for weeks with no response from him and prospects for his recovery are grave at best. His family and doctors are helpless to do anything but wait because he can not speak for himself and let them know that he would rather they pull the plug and let him go peacefully than to exist like this. This situation could have been prevented if this man had a living will.
A living will is a legal document that lets a person inform their family and doctors of his/her wishes regarding life-sustaining procedures in the event that they are incapacitated or rendered permanently unconscious. People don’t really expect this to happen to them, but the fact is that it happens all the time. Most people don’t want their family to be burdened with the choice about “pulling the plug”, and in some states, if there is no living will stating a person’s wishes, the doctors are not permitted to discontinue life-support. For this reason, it is important for everyone to draw up a living will.
Because laws surrounding living wills vary from state to state, it is advisable to seek out the help of an attorney who specializes in estate planning. A lawyer can answer all questions and make appropriate recommendations as to what documents should be set up and whether a Medical Power of Attorney should be named. (A Medical Power of Attorney is a person who will make medical decisions on someone’s behalf if they are incapacitated, but their medical condition is non-life threatening.)
The living will contains a list of directives for doctors and family to follow relating to resuscitation, life support, breathing tubes and feeding tubes. The person writing a living will has the right to decide how they want their medical care to be handled in all of these situations and others not mentioned in the scope of this article. The decisions made in the living will are not automatically acted upon in any life threatening situation. A heart attack, for example, is life threatening, but the prospects for recovery are good after a heart attack, so medical personnel will resuscitate and do anything possible to revive the person. The living will usually comes into play for a person with either a terminal illness or someone who has been declared permanently unconscious with no prospects of recovery.
After a person takes the steps to set up a living will, the most important thing to do is make their doctors and family aware of the document. It can be a difficult discussion to have, especially with family members, but the living will only works if the right people know it exists. After the document has been completed, copies of it should be provided to the family doctor and immediate family members so that they can carry out its directives.