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Wills and estate planning

Living wills: Answering some of life's important questions

You may have heard that a living will is a good idea, but do you understand what a living will actually does? Here's some information to help you understand and take advantage of this type of document.

Did you know that 92 percent of Americans know they need a living will but only 27 percent actually have them? That's what the Conversation Project found in its 2013 national survey. We want you to have the answers you need to life's important questions and hope this article helps you prepare now, before a medical crisis arises.

Visiting websites like Compassionate Choices or The Conversation may help you prepare to answer difficult questions. The Compassion and Choices site provides information about your state's regulations and offers a values worksheet that helps you prioritize what is important to you during an end-of-life scenario. As you and your spouse complete this worksheet, you gain clarity about your preferences and which legal documents you need in place to support your wishes. The Conversation walks you step-by-step through how to discuss your wishes with loved ones and friends.

The questions and answers below may provide a foundation for further research.

What is a living will?

A living will is a legal document that informs doctors and medical caregivers what medical care you want if you are unable to communicate due to an accident, severe illness, dementia or coma. It also guides your family to make decisions about sustaining your quality of life that you would agree with. For example, it can specify if you want pain medication, to die at home or in a hospital, and when to cease heroic efforts to keep you alive. Again, check your state regulations and visit the American Bar Association for template forms and additional resources.

Why do I need a living will?

You want your wishes to be recorded in writing, not left to others' discretion. Your loved ones will be under duress and may not remember - or agree with - what you wish to take place. A living will spares your family the heartache of guessing what to do and protects you from receiving more medical care than you want, such as ventilator support or IV feeding for long periods of time.

What is a health care agent or health care proxy?

Your health care agent is a person appointed to make decisions regarding your medical care and the health care proxy is the document that empowers them to act on your behalf. Your health care agent can also provide insight about your wishes in a situation not specifically addressed in your living will. The health care agent and proxy do not become effective until your doctor declares you medically unable to understand the consequences of care or unable to communicate.

The Mayo Clinic recommends you choose someone who:

  • Meets your state's requirements for a health care agent
  • Is not your doctor or part of your medical care team
  • Is willing and able to discuss medical care and end-of-life issues with you
  • Can be trusted to make decisions that adhere to your wishes and values
  • Can be trusted to be your advocate if there are disagreements about your care

Where do I need to keep my living will and health care proxy?

Keep the originals in a secure, accessible place such as a fireproof safe, along with a detailed list of who has copies. Carry a wallet card indicating you have advance directives, where they are kept, and identifying your health care agent.

Can I change my living will, health care agent or health care proxy?

You can change these advance directives at any time; however, it is important to retrieve and destroy all previous copies. An outdated copy could unintentionally take precedence over the revised copy, so keep a detailed up-to-date distribution list. Be aware of three life events that signal it's time to make revisions: a new diagnosis, marriage or divorce, or a change in your wishes.

Who should have a copy of my living will and health care power of attorney?

Your health care agent and any alternates, primary care doctor, attorney and members of your family. In addition to copies of your living will, be sure to discuss your wishes with your family now.

While it can be challenging to think through these important choices, it can also be a life enriching process for you and your family. And, you can be comforted by the knowledge that you cared enough to protect their peace of mind during a very difficult time of life.



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