Do I Need a Living Will? Questions and Answers
Thanks to medical innovations and new technologies, Americans are living
longer and healthier lives. In most cases technology helps families stay
together longer, but in some cases medical machines are used to keep an
individual alive long after the mind and body have ceased to function
More than a decade ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled that an individual
has the constitutional right to refuse medical treatment — even
life-sustaining machines. This same ruling endorsed the concept of a Living
Will as a method for clearly defining the wishes of an individual to exercise
the right to make his or her own medical decision.
The health care professionals of the Barnabas Health Hospice and Palliative
Care Center, an affiliate of the Saint Barnabas Health Care System, offer
the following questions and answers about Living Wills.
What is a Living Will?
A Living Will is a written document that instructs your family members
and physician on the type of care you wish to receive. Specifically, it
indicates whether or not you want life-prolonging medical procedures.
A Health Care Proxy designates whom you wish to make your medical decisions
for you, should you become incapacitated.
Where Can I obtain a Living Will?
Living Will forms are available from many sources including the following:
The Barnabas Health Hospice and Palliative Care Center –
- Hospitals, home health agencies, and nursing and rehabilitation centers
- Family physician
- Family lawyer
- New Jersey Division on Aging
By law, all New Jersey hospitals must ask if you have a Living Will and
provide you with a Living Will form upon admission. Why not be prepared
in advance? Waiting until a crisis situation arises to prepare a Living
Will is not advisable. Upon admission to a hospital, you could be unconscious
and physically unable to sign a Living Will, or you may not be in a frame
of mind where you can make a clear decision.
What are the benefits of having a Living Will?
There are several benefits. A Living Will relieves family members of the
burden of making and agonizing over life or death decision regarding prolonged
medical treatment. It also works so that your physician is not put in
the position of having to make important life and death decisions for
you. For example, if there are differences in opinion amongst your family
members regarding your care, your physician or the court will be forced
to make all decisions if no Living Will is present.
Do I need an attorney to prepare my Living Will?
No. A Living Will does not require the services of an attorney as long
as the document follows the proper formalities. However, this is an evolving
area of law and state statutes are subject to change. To be assured that
your Living Will conforms to the most recent legislation, it is advisable
to seek legal counsel. A health care proxy does not require an attorney
just two witnesses.
Should I tell others I have a Living Will?
Yes. To ensure that your wishes are known, give copies of your Living Will
to your physician for your medical file and to a family member or close
friend. Also, keep a copy with your important papers. Don’t put
a Living Will in your safe deposit box where it is not easily accessible
to others. Some people carry a card in their wallet stating where a signed
Living Will can be located.
Can I change my mind and modify or revoke my Living Will?
Yes. In fact, it is a good idea to review your Living Will from time to
time. That way, family members and your health care providers know that
the document still reflects your wishes. Just make sure any changes you
make comply with state law.
It’s your decision
While it is your constitutional right to make your own health care decisions
—including end-of-life decisions — that right may be forfeited
unless you make provisions beforehand. A Living Will is one sure way to
protect your rights.
As long as your document is drafted correctly, the law will honor it. Your
Living Will must be signed, dated and witnessed by someone other than
a relative, potential heir, health care provider, or the person designated
as your decision maker. Certainly it is important to discuss your Living
Will with your family members. It is also important to share your views
on prolonged medical treatment. But keep in mind that, ultimately, it’s