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The Importance of a Living Will

by smeneshi - Oct 03, 2016

Some of the most important medical decisions affecting your treatment and care are made in the final weeks, months or years of your life.  Unfortunately, so few of us ever think about or act upon how we want those important decisions to be made. Since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, there have been enhanced discussions between physicians and patients on end-of-life decisions. In fact, Medicare now reimburses doctors for any time spent discussing end-of-life issues with patients.


As a comprehensive financial planner, I routinely advise my clients to make certain any potential long-term care expenses will be covered with the least amount of financial and emotional strain. As part of the long-term conversation, I also educate clients regarding the vital importance of advance directive documents.


As it relates to one’s healthcare, an advance directive is a document that allows a person to make his or her own healthcare decisions (while mentally competent and physically able) in case of mental or physical incompetence. In other words, a living will only takes effect when a patient is unconscious, demented or otherwise incapacitated and clearly unable to make his or her own decisions.  The most common type of advance directive is a living will and contrary to what many people believe, a living will does not always restrict medical treatment or allow a family member simply to “pull the plug.”



What type of things will be listed in your living will?

  1. Life-prolonging treatment such as blood transfusions, administration of drugs and antibiotics, use of a respirator, CPR and surgery
  2. Administration of food and water.  If you become permanently unconscious, it’s possible that you may live for a long time (e.g. Terry Schiavo) if given food and water intravenously
  3. Palliative care, which is care given to reduce pain if you choose to forego life-sustaining treatments


Your living will should be a very clear description of how you want your medical treatment to be administered, if at all, depending upon the situation.  With the advisement of an estate planning attorney, you can list your wishes based on different situations since you may want a certain type of care when death is imminent and another type of care if you are in a coma but expected to recover.


The advantages of a living will are: 

  1. It keeps you in control of your life (and death) in the event you cannot communicate your wishes
  2. It can can promote dialogue about a very important topic with family members and healthcare providers
  3. Legal battles and unnecessary suffering can be avoided or the likelihood greatly reduced
  4. Family members are not forced to make difficult end-of-life decisions on your behalf. Though it will be emotionally painful for close family members, you can lift a tremendous burden from their shoulders with some simple planning


Common problems relating to living wills are:

  1. Only a small percentage of the population completes a living will and a fair amount of those neglect to distribute copies to family members, their health care agent, doctor or care facility
  2. A living will is useless when it’s locked away in a safety deposit box and inaccessible
  3. A living will is not legally binding upon health care professionals
  4. Each state has its own form, so if you use the standard living will form you have to complete a new one if you move to another state


Although you do not need a lawyer to create a living will, it’s my preference that clients have their estate planning documents prepared by a licensed professional that is well-versed in estate planning. If you go at it yourself, you may be able to get free living will forms at:

  1. Your physician’s office
  2. A senior center
  3. Your state’s website, and
  4. Your state’s medical association


There are only two certainties in life, and in the event you become incapacitated, your living will states your wishes for one of those certainties. Of course, your living will is only effective if your closest family members and medical professionals know about it.  So although you may be reluctant to bring end-of-life issues up with your loved ones and health care providers, it’s a vitally important topic that needs addressing.


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