A living will, also called a declaration, tells your family and doctor your wishes when you can't speak for yourself. It's used to describe treatment you want as you near the end of your life or if you get seriously hurt or ill. You can change or cancel your living will at any time.
How a living will is used
Keep these facts in mind about how a living will is used.
- Your living will is used only if you can't speak or make decisions for yourself. Most often, one or more doctors must certify that you can't speak or decide for yourself before your living will takes effect.
- If you get better and can speak for yourself again, you can accept or refuse any treatment. It doesn't matter what you said in your living will.
- Some states may limit your right to refuse treatment in certain cases. For example, you may need to clearly state in your living will that you don't want artificial hydration and nutrition, such as being fed through a tube.
What to know about a living will
A living will is a legal document. Each state has its own laws about living wills. And a living will may be called something else in your state.
Here are some things to know about living wills.
- You don't need an attorney to complete a living will. But legal advice can be helpful if your state's laws are unclear. It can also help if your health history is complicated or your family can't agree on what should be in your living will.
- You can change your living will at any time. Some people find that their wishes about end-of-life care change as their health changes. If you make big changes to your living will, complete a new form.
- If you move to another state, make sure that your living will is legal in the state where you now live. In most cases, doctors will respect your wishes even if you have a form from a different state.
- You might use a universal form that has been approved by many states. This kind of form can sometimes be filled out and stored online. Your digital copy will then be available wherever you have a connection to the internet. The doctors and nurses who need to treat you can find it right away.
- Your state may offer an online registry. This is another place where you can store your living will online.
- It's a good idea to get your living will notarized. This means using a person called a notary public to watch two people sign, or witness, your living will.
Questions to ask yourself
Here are some questions to ask yourself as you make your living will.
- Do you know enough about life support methods that might be used? If not, talk to your doctor so you know what might be done if you can't breathe on your own, your heart stops, or you can't swallow.
- What things would you still want to be able to do after you receive life-support methods? Would you want to be able to walk? To speak? To eat on your own? To live without the help of machines?
- Do you want certain religious practices performed if you become very ill?
- If you have a choice, where do you want to be cared for? In your home? At a hospital or nursing home?
- If you have a choice at the end of your life, where would you prefer to die? At home? In a hospital or nursing home? Somewhere else?
- Would you prefer to be buried or cremated?
- Do you want your organs to be donated after you die?
What to do with your living will
- Make sure that your family members and your health care agent have copies of your living will (also called a declaration).
- Give your doctor a copy of your living will. Ask to have it kept as part of your medical record. If you have more than one doctor, make sure that each one has a copy.
- Put a copy of your living will where it can be easily found. For example, some people may put a copy on their refrigerator door. If you are using a digital copy, be sure your doctor, family members, and health care agent know how to find and access it.
Current as of: March 17, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
Anne C. Poinier MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Jean S. Kutner MD, MSPH - Geriatric Medicine, Hospice and Palliative Medicine
Robin L. Fainsinger MBChB, LMCC, CCFP - Palliative Medicine