Living Will

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 naturally.

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 – 800-400-0981
  • 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 your decision.