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What is a living will?

End-of-life decisions are an unfortunate but necessary part of long-term planning. Like wills, these plans should be considered as early as possible. A living will is one mechanism used to declare these intentions.

A living will becomes effective after a doctor diagnoses a patient as being terminally ill, and the patient is unable to make or communicate decisions about their care. It usually contains directions on limiting care to making the patient comfortable, identify permissible medical interventions such as CPR and blood transfusions, contains directions on prolonging life, states whether experimental treatments are permissible and the use of specific drugs. The administration of food and water through tubes is a very important item.

While there are similar terms, it differs from a power of attorney because that document emphasizes who makes those decisions while a living will focuses on what the decision should be. A power of attorney usually grants authority during temporary disability and is more flexible because it is designed to cover unexpected circumstances while a living will is restricted to terminal illness or permanent unconsciousness. The living will may be followed without the presence of the person who is making the end of life decisions.

Individuals can have a living will and a power of attorney. The living will is an expression of the patient's wishes and is important if the patient's advocate is unavailable. It is important, however, that both documents must have consistent terms.

Michigan, however, is not one of the 47 states that legally recognize a living will. A state court decision provides some authority that a living will would be binding although there is no absolute guarantee. A living will is recommended, however, if the person does not have a power of attorney.

There are no formal requirements governing the contents of a living will because Michigan has no laws governing their use. However, the document should be clearly titled as a living will, signed by the person it governs and by two witnesses who are not family members and contain the date that it was executed.

Establishing terms for these important decisions is important when a person has the capacity to express their wishes. An attorney can help provide recommendations and draft legally-valid documents that clearly set forth these terms.

Source: Michigan Lawhelp, "Living wills," Accessed Jan. 16, 2018

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