A living will is a document that tells health care professionals what kinds of medical treatment you would like to receive—or not receive—in the event you become too ill to make decisions about your treatment. Depending on where you live, a living will may also be called an advance directive or declaration. It is completely different from a will, which sets out how you would like your assets distributed after your death.

When to make a living will

Anyone can make a living will, and it's recommended if you are aging or have a medical condition that may get worse.

In some states you may need to prepare two separate documents: a living will that states your desire for medical treatment, and a durable power of attorney for health care that appoints another person to make decisions for you if you are unable. In other states, these may be combined in an advanced directive. Your state's requirements for living wills should be available online.

Issues to cover in your living will

Your living will is the place to spell out in detail what medical treatments you wish to refuse or have done if you become unable to make choices about your care due to serious illness.

A key issue to consider is whether you want to be kept on life support if there appears to be little chance you will recover. Another is whether to include a do not resuscitate order (DNR), stating that if your heart stops, you do not want to be resuscitated. A DNR is often chosen by very ill people who do not want their lives prolonged by the use of medical technology.

Other issues to consider include blood transfusions, kidney dialysis, surgery, use of a respirator for breathing, medications you might want to refuse, and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). You may also note whether or not you want any further diagnostic testing done.

How a living will works

A living will can be drawn up easily from forms in books or through online resources. Once you have made a living will, be sure to show it to your family members and medical providers so they know about it if you are admitted to the hospital with a life-threatening problem.

If you make a living will, you can give others easy access to it, no matter where you are receiving medical treatment, by registering it with the U.S. Living Will Registry. Medical personnel should be able to view it easily online from the registry.

Additional resources:

U.S. Living Will Registry

U.S. Living Will Registry: Advance Directive (Living Will) Forms by state

Related Legal Guides:

Living Will Registry

Power of Attorney

Avoiding Probate

Revocable Trusts

Appointing a Guardian for Minor Children