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Ask the Attorney: Advanced Medical Directives

Q: I keep hearing how important it is that I have a living will. What is a living will, and why should I have one?

A living will is a legal document that addresses what many people consider a nightmare scenario: being terminally ill and too unwell to be incapable of making one’s own medical decisions. 

Living wills consist of two parts. The meat of a living will is contained in an advanced medical directive that spells out what medical care you want if you are terminally ill and unable to make your own medical decisions. Additionally, a living will contains a medical power of attorney that grants someone you trust the power to make medical decisions on your behalf if you cannot make them yourself.

In the advanced medical directive portion of the living will, patients specifically list what life-prolonging medical treatment, if any, they might want if they are terminally ill. The document only goes into effect when two criteria are met.  First, the patient must be incapable of making her own decisions. Second, a doctor must determine to a reasonable degree of medical certainty that there is no significant probability that the patient will survive, or regain consciousness or brain function. In other words, a doctor must make the call that the patient is extremely unlikely to ever regain an independent quality of life.

Many patients decide they do not want treatment above and beyond that which eases their suffering while they succumb to their illness, such as receiving painkillers. Patients who take this approach almost always state that they do not want antibiotics, feeding or breathing tubes, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or any other treatments that will artificially prolong their lives.

An advantage of living wills is that they give clear-cut guidance for family members to follow in an otherwise emotional and difficult time. Complicated and often heart-breaking decisions are made much easier for family members if they know for a fact that they are following the wishes of their loved ones. 

Moreover, by designating a single decision maker, a living will can eliminate confusion and potential disagreement by family members with conflicting ideas about what the patient wanted.

It is important to closely consider the questions that underlie living wills.  They can profoundly affect a terminal patient’s quality of life, and can ensure that you leave this world according to your wishes. If you are concerned about the idea of being kept alive in a vegetative state, or want to ensure a loved one can make crucial medical decisions for you, then meet with an attorney to execute a living will.

(This article is intended as a discussion of legal topics that are often confusing to many laypeople; it is not, and should not be relied on, as legal advice. Attorney Jesse White is licensed to practice solely in Pennsylvania and any information discussed relates solely to Pennsylvania law. The hiring of a lawyer is an important decision that should only be made after careful consideration. If you have a question for the attorney, contact The Law Office of Jesse White in Cecil at 724-743-4444 or visit www.jessewhitelaw.com.)

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