Many people are confused about the difference between a living will and a healthcare power of attorney. A living will specifies life prolonging treatments you do or do not want in the event you either suffer from a terminal illness or are in a permanent vegetative state. It does not become effective unless you are incapacitated and, generally, requires certification by your doctor, and another doctor, that you are either suffering from a terminal illness or have been rendered permanently unconscious. So if you suffer a heart attack, for instance, but do not have a terminal illness or are not in a permanent state of unconsciousness, a living will does not have any effect. You would still be resuscitated, even if you had a living will indicating that you don’t want life prolonging procedures. A living will is only used when your ultimate recovery is hopeless.
For situations where you are incapacitated and unable to speak for yourself, but your condition is not dire enough to make your living will effective, you should have a health care power of attorney or health care proxy. A health care power of attorney is a legal document that gives someone else the authority to make health care decisions for you in the event you are incapacitated. The person you designate to make these decisions on your behalf will do so based upon what you would want, so of course you must be sure to talk with them in great detail about your wishes.
We sometimes refer to a living will as a Love Letter. What do we mean by that? By making your health care wishes known and clearly describing them to your family, you not only ensure your desires will be carried out, you also spare your loved ones the trauma of having to make a critical medical decision on their own. Even though your ultimate recovery may be hopeless, making critical medical decisions can lead to infighting and permanently damage relationships between family members; stressful battles between hospital staff and family; and haunt your loved ones with guilt for years to come.
In effect, a living will is a final, thoughtful expression of love for your family and your hopes for their emotional well-being in the future. Of course, a living will can’t do any good unless your physician and loved ones know about it. This may be a very difficult conversation to have, especially with your family, but letting them know what you want, and why, truly lessens their burden and helps them come to terms with your desires in advance and with minimal stress. We have the experience and understanding to counsel you on the best ways to begin such a conversation, and then, design an effective living will capable of ensuring your wishes are carried out and protecting your family emotionally.