I Want to Set Up a Living Will and Health Care Proxy

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Understand what a living will and health care proxy are and why they are important.

A living will, also known as an advance medical directive, is a document that outlines the medical decisions you want made in case you are unable to communicate them yourself. A health care proxy, a document that often accompanies a living will, names the person you want to make health care decisions for you (known as an agent) in case you are incapacitated. Essentially, the living will states what you want and the health care proxy states who you want to carry that out.

While something like planning for retirement seems like a long-term project, writing a living will shouldn’t because it could affect you and your family tomorrow. It’s not pleasant to think about, but a living will ensures that you’ll receive the treatment you want if you have an accident or suddenly fall ill. It could spare your family members the stress of deciding on treatment for you, or the costly court process of appointing a guardian if they are unable to agree. (Read more about the importance of living wills here.)

Figure out your preferences for medical treatment.

Consider these questions to help you decide:

  • If your heart stopped beating, would you want CPR or defibrillation, which gives an electric shock to the heart?
  • If you were unable to breathe on your own, would you want assistance from a breathing machine?
  • If you were unable to eat or drink, would you want feeding tubes to supply your body with nutrition and fluids, and/or dialysis to remove waste from your blood and manage fluid levels?
  • Would you want to donate your organs and tissue for transplantation or scientific study?

Because a living will raises questions that aren’t necessarily easy to answer, you may want talk to your doctor about these options and ask her any questions you may have. Also, if you practice a religion that has a particular stance on certain treatments, you could check with your local religious institution to see if they have sample living wills. Many offer forms that are tailored to their particular religious beliefs.

Appoint a health care proxy agent and inform him/her of your decision.

For your health care agent, choose someone you think will act honestly and maturely, with your interests at heart (not someone you feel obligated to ask). This can be a family member, friend or outside adviser who is able to make unbiased decisions. Once you decide, inform her of your decision and decide on a time to meet and discuss your living will before writing the official legal forms.

Decide whether you want to hire a licensed attorney or write your own will.

If you want to write your own, you can order both a living will and health care proxy (sometimes referred to as a health care power of attorney) from LegalZoom.com ($40- $50) or download the forms from your state’s website (costs range from free to around $40).

If you decide to do it yourself:

  1. Make sure you follow the laws of your state because the process for creating a living will and health care proxy varies from state to state. Some states require you to have two witnesses or a notary A notary is a state-appointed official licensed to perform legal acts, particularly witnessing signatures.  when you sign your living will. Others only need one witness or even none at all. Learn the regulations for living wills and proxies for your state here.
  2. Search online for your state’s living will and proxy forms (search “[your state] + living will form”).
  3. Fill out the forms and have them signed by the agent you’ve chosen, as well as any witnesses your state requires. Because of the ease of creating your own living will, most people should be fine with the do-it-yourself option. If would want to hire an attorney for any special concerns you have, it will likely cost between $150 and $500.

Fill out the forms, and have them signed by your chosen health care proxy.

If you’ve written your own living will, you should take it to a notary. Notarizing your documents means the notary will identify you, acknowledge that she saw your living will signed, and make a note of it in her records. It’s not required in all states, but it’s always a good idea to make your documents official.

If you decide to hire an attorney, she will let you know if you need witnesses when you and your health care agent sign your documents and will get both notarized, if necessary.

Give a copy of your living will to your health care agent, attorney and family doctor, and keep one for yourself.

After you’ve given your living will to these three important people, file away your copy in a binder with the rest of your estate planning and insurance documents, and let your health care agent and family members know where you put it.

Review your living will every few years.

If you move to a different state, check to see if the requirements for living wills and health care proxies for your old state will still stand. If they are different, you’ll have to fill out new forms. You can see your state’s living will laws here. Also be sure to revisit your decisions as your perspective on life, your health or your family situation changes.