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Understanding a living will for medical decisions

Many people are familiar with the purpose of a will. They understand that one of its primary purposes is to direct how assets will be distributed, and to whom, upon the will creator's death. Another important, yet commonly overlooked, element of estate planning is a living will. Although it is similar to a traditional will in that it is a written document with legal force, there are many differences between a standard will and a living will.

The first and most important distinction between the two types of wills is that a standard is consulted only after a person has died while a living will is consulted when a person is still living. Another important distinction is that a living will does not discuss assets but instead relates only to medical treatments and other medically related issues, like pain management and organ donation.

Many people have strong beliefs and desires related to the end of their lives. What may be a reasonable, life-saving, and life-prolonging measure for some people may be an undesired and unnecessary extension of life to others. Unfortunately, there comes a time in many people's lives when they are no longer able to make, or convey, those decisions on their own. Some people choose to rely on family members to make these decisions for them, but the situation can become complicated when family members disagree with each other or when a person's relative does not agree, and does not want to follow through with, the wishes the now-incapacitated person previously made known.

A living will has legal force to ensure that a person's wishes regarding his or her medical care will be respected. A living will generally covers a range of issues, including resuscitation, mechanical ventilation, tube feeding, dialysis, antibiotics and antiviral medications, comfort or palliative care, organ and tissue donation, and body donation. With the help of a living will, people can specify if, when, and for how long they want certain treatments or medical assistance, what kind of end of life care is desired, and how they want their body to be used after death.

Source: Mayo Clinic, "Consumer Health: Living wills and advance directives for medical decisions," Nov. 11, 2014

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