A Living Will orders a doctor to use or not to use extreme life-saving measures, such as life support, if you are in an irrecoverable coma or in a "persistent vegetative state." A Living Will is sometimes mistakenly called a Do Not Resuscitate Order (DNR) because most people use this document to stop extreme life-saving measures. However, a true DNR is an order from a physician for other medical personnel (such as EMTs) to withhold life support. In a typical Living Will, doctors are ordered either to withhold life support or are requested to administer life support. Doctors are also ordered to withhold artificial nutrition or are ordered to give nutrition.
Because the Living Will was drafted, signed and notarized while the patient was conscious and of sound mind, doctors must follow the directives of a Living Will document. This not only allows you to make these important decisions ahead of time, but it also removes the burden of making these difficult decisions from your loved ones. Additionally, it makes sure that the decisions you and your partner agree upon are not overruled by family members.
Many prospective clients have said "Well, my partner knows what I want to have done… let's skip the Living Will." We respond by saying, "Do you really think your doctor will turn to your partner when a parent is standing there? Do you really expect your family to obey your partner when he or she tells them what to do? Even if they would, do you want your partner to think that they were responsible for your death for the rest of their lives so you can avoid paying for a Living Will?"
What does a Living Will do?
A Living Will allows you to make decisions regarding life support and artificial nutrition and hydration ahead of time while you are legally competent. These orders will take affect if you are in a persistent vegetative state (if desired) or if you are terminal and incurable (if desired). If you do not want artificial nutrition, hydration or life support administered if you are in a persistent vegetative state, then it will be written out in a Living Will, and doctors must follow these directions.
For example, a person living in North Carolina decides that she wishes to withhold life support, artificial nutrition, and hydration if she is in a persistent vegetative state. She also decides to withhold the same treatments if she is terminal and incurable. After signing the Living Will in front of a notary and two witnesses, she makes multiple copies and leaves them with her partner, her doctor, her human resources manager, friends and family members that are likely to enact her wishes, and she leaves one copy in her briefcase and one in her car. In North Carolina, if the situation arises and she is in a persistent vegetative state, then any doctor receiving a copy of her duly executed Living Will must obey the patient's directives.
What does a Living Will not do?
A Living Will does not take away your right to request life support, artificial nutrition or hydration if you are able to. It does not mean that you cannot revoke the Living Will or enact another one later. Remember, a Living Will only handles these critical decisions if you are unable to.
A Living Will also does not appoint someone else to make these decisions for you. It also does not appoint someone to make other decisions regarding your health if you are simply unable to communicate your wishes. Those appointments of healthcare agents are handled in a Healthcare Power of Attorney. For more information, see Healthcare Agent.
Lastly (at least for this discussion), your Living Will does not relieve you of your liability for your medical bills. Regardless of the treatment you receive under a Living Will, you (and/or your health insurance company under the terms of their contract with you) are still primarily responsible for the payment of medical bills. After all, in making a Living Will, you are making decisions for yourself regarding your own medical treatment as if you were still capable of communicating them. Just because a the decision is made ahead of time does not mean that someone else has to pay the medical bills.