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The Living Will

Updated on February 12, 2011

What is a Living Will?


Hopefully you've so far lived a life of freedom and choice, a living will (or advanced medical directive) enables you to do the same when dying. You can achieve some peace of mind in knowing how you will be taken care of those final moments of your life how you best see fit. A living will spells out your preferences regarding the use of medical treatment to delay an inevitable death. A living will spares your family the anguish from making heart wrenching decisions as well as guarantees that your wishes will be followed if you're unable to communicate or lack the mental capacity to make such decisions.

Remember that it’s better to start making a living will now rather than later. People have a habit of seriously underestimating how potentially incapable they could be in making decisions when succumbing to a sudden and fatal illness for example. We're unable to predict our own death. It's natural to think we're going to live healthily our entire life, be able to think for ourselves, and make our own decisions until we die naturally of old age with all our loved ones all around us. Such a fantasy doesn't exist. A living will can be quite a painful quest down the path of human mortality, but that's no reason to torture yourself or delay what will be the inevitable for us all.

How to Write a Living Will

1. Simply have a heart felt discussion with your partner or spouse and family members on your beliefs and wishes. Make sure you designate a primary beneficiary and a secondary beneficiary for all your financial accounts, your insurance policies and your estate. A primary beneficiary is the person who will receive your insurance policies, finances, estate, etc. in the event of your passing. The secondary beneficiary is your backup. The reason why it's important to have a secondary beneficiary, especially considering your primary beneficiary may most likely be your spouse, you must consider the possibility your spouse may heaven forbid decease before you, or even worse, you may both succumb to a fatal injury simultaneously in for example an automobile accident. You should also have a talk with your family physician as to what general medical treatments you wish to be permitted in the unfortunate event of your inevitable passing. If you're religious, it also wouldn't hurt to have a discussion with your clergy, a rabbi, an imam, etc. as to how to handle the situation on a spiritual level.

2. Obtain your state's/province's living will form from your state health department, local hospital, doctor, or the local area agency on aging. You may also find forms on the Internet (at no cost). You can get a lawyer to perform such duties, but this old fashioned method is very expensive, and I recommend you avoid such a process at all costs. If the person who wishes to have a living will is from a generation that is accustomed to getting a lawyer to perform such tasks, kindly explain to your loved one there are better options available. While it is perfectly legal to create a living will on your own power (barring witness signatures of course), a living will shouldn’t be a solo project. Keeping your family members and friends informed, as well as getting a few second opinions, will avoid a lot of unnecessary mistakes.

3. Take the time to review the forms carefully. If there are certain sections in the form you don't understand, it never hurts to quickly consult an expert with a short phone call. For example, if there are certain medical terminologies you can't comprehend, don't hesitate to have a discussion with your doctor. If you're unsure how your finances will be sorted, contact your bank or insurance agent. You may need the advice of your doctor when specifying which types of treatment you don't want. On the living will form, you can differentiate between life-prolonging procedures and those that alleviate pain. Don't feel you're limited by the formatting on the form, remember it's your life, specify details that are important to you about your care that the form doesn't cover.

4. Write a list of all your key processions you would like to donate. It isn't required you specify every item in your procession, mostly the items you care about or may have sentimental values to certain family members. For example, if there is a musician in your family, you may designate this family member to get your acoustic guitar in the event of your passing. You can specify in your living will that all remaining items are to be sold by your executor and sent off to your designated charity.

5. Choose an executor; this is the person who would distribute your valuables. Your executor should be willing to follow your directions. Avoid making someone your executor who can become a conflict of interest. I don't recommend you designate your executor the same person as your primary or secondary beneficiary for that represents a conflict of interest. The executor is tasked with the responsibility of managing and enforcing your will. Make sure your executor is a person of strong mental fortitude. Make certain the executor is a person whom you trust with a history of close geographical proximity to yourself.

6. If you have any children, on your will you need to decide who will get legal guardianship of your children. This is imperative for single parents, however if both parents are alive it's still recommended to designate a secondary guardian in the event you both decease near simultaneously. If the other parent has a history of child abuse, crime, or a case of being mentally unfit to raise children, and you wish to not have this person become a default guardian, you need to specify this information on your living will.

7. Clarify how you want to be buried and where your burial insurance is. A big, beautiful ivory coffin with thousands of roses may sound like a very memorable way to go, but if your cousins can't scrape up enough cash to get you buried in a box and fight over whether they believe in coffins or cremation, this ideal funeral isn't going to happen.

8. Sign the living will form and get it witnessed according to your state's/province's laws. Usually, you're required to have two witnesses in good health and of a stable mind. The witnesses will need to confirm that you too are in a state of good health and a stable mind. The two witnesses who sign your will and confirm you wrote the will, cannot be people who are receiving any items in your will nor can they be your beneficiaries. It's possible you may need a notary public as a witness signature. A notary public can be any professional (lawyers, doctors, accountants, insurance agents, engineers, state officials, etc.) you happen to know. A will that is improperly signed or witnessed could potentially be ruled as invalid.

9. Give copies to your family members, doctor and lawyer. Put a copy in your home medical file. Make sure people are properly informed where you have placed your original will form. While the copies make great backup when tragedy befalls you, the original copy is recognized as the most authentic. Remember, it's primarily your responsibility to make sure your will is well kept and accessible.

10. Every few years, it's recommended to review your living will. Perhaps you may wish to make some changes.

-Donovan D. Westhaver


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