Sunday, March 10, 2013

Understanding Living Wills

Expressing Wishes in Writing

Many people do not understand the difference between a living will and a final will and testament. While both are very important legal documents, a "Living Will" is completely different form a "Final Will and Testament". A "Final Will and Testament" specifies to whom individuals will leave personal assets, property, valuables, or custody of minor children. A "Living Will" is for use in a health care aspect. Individuals without tangible assets may still wish to enact a "Living Will".

So, what is a "Living Will" anyway?

A living will or advance directive generally directs health care providers whether or not to use heroic treatments or extraordinary measures that would delay death, such as breathing machines (respirators/ventilators), or to stop such treatments if they have been started. Individuals can also specify their views about giving food and water through a tube (artificial nutrition or hydration), as well as the length of time such treatments are to continue.

Who carries out these wishes?

The party responsible for following specified wishes is completely up to the patient. A Health care Power of Attorney is given to the person named to make medical decisions predetermined by the patient. This person is called a "health care agent" or "proxy." The agent or proxy is the voice of the patient and voices only the feelings and thoughts that the patient has expressed. They are to present decisions in an unbiased manner, regardless of their own viewpoints.

Will physicians and staff ignore the patient and go directly to the Power of Attorney or Proxy?

No. Make no mistake, patients' thoughts, feelings, and values take priority over anything else. Health care providers will provide any available information so that patients may make an educated decision, but the final decision rests with the patient and those wishes will be respected. A health care Power of Attorney or Proxy only becomes effective in the event that is physically or mentally unable to make their own choices known.

What happens if there is not a Living Will or Advance Directive in place?

The decisions of health care become the responsibility of next of kin, even if the patient would not want that person to be involved. If the patient does not have proof of their wishes outlined, there is no way for anyone to know what they would have wanted.

The topic of living wills or advanced directives may be one of the most uncomfortable conversations a family ever has, but the only way to ensure that everyone understands and respects each others' wishes is to maintain an open dialog. This discussion will also relieve some of the stress and tension from grieving family members during a difficult time.

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