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Living Wills

For those of use who have faced the hospitalization and death of a loved one, final health care decisions can be heartbreaking things. Decisions regarding life support, artificial nutrition, artificial hydration and medication can be difficult and troubling, and they hit families at the time when the families are the most emotionally overwhelmed.

To avoid causing such stress in the family, many opt for a living will. Living wills, also called health care directives or a physician's directives, are often confused with a living trusts. Living wills and living trusts are completely different things: A living trust is an estate planning document that holds and distributes assets to avoid probate, while a living will is a document that a person uses to make known his or her wishes regarding life prolonging medical treatments if the person cannot speak for himself or herself.

Generally, a living will addresses life prolonging treatments, and which treatments the declarant wants or does not want applied in the event of a terminal illness or a permanent vegetative state. A living will is only effective upon incapacitation, and generally requires a certification by two doctors that the declarant is either terminally ill or permanently unconscious. Until that time, the living will has no effect and the patient is involved in decisions regarding care. For example, if a person suffers from an illness from which he or she is expected to recover, but otherwise does not have any terminal illness and is not permanently unconscious, a living will does not have any effect. That person would still be resuscitated, if necessary, even if there was a living will indicating no life prolonging procedures. A living will is only used when ultimate recovery is hopeless.

The living will also addresses whether the terminally ill person wants artificially provided nutrition or hydration as well as medication to relieve pain. Having these issues addressed up front in a living will can be a godsend for family members, who are distraught and uncertain about the wishes of a loved one who can’t speak for himself or herself.

Lastly, once a living will is prepared and executed, it is important to make sure that doctors and family members know about it. A living will does no good if it sits in a drawer and no one knows about it. If you want to prepare a living will, have to talk with your doctor and family members. Discuss with them what kinds of end of life medical treatments you want. Then, give copies of the document to your doctor and family members so that everyone is clear about your wishes.

Caleb Morgan