What Is a Living Will?
In a Living Will, you state your wishes for the kinds of medical treatment you do or don't want if you become seriously ill or injured and unable to speak for yourself. The document may go by another name in your state, such as "Advance Directive" or "Declaration," but most people (and any health care provider) will know what you mean if you say "Living Will."
A Living Will doesn't have anything to do with the kind of will or trust you use to leave property to others when you die; it's exclusively a place to write down your health care wishes.
When Your Living Will Takes Effect
Your Living Will becomes effective only if doctors determine that you can no longer make your own health care decisions. This condition is often called "lacking capacity." If you lack capacity, it means you are unable to:
- understand the nature and consequences of the medical treatment options available to you, or
- communicate what you want, either by speaking, writing, or gesturing.
Essentially, if you are so sick or injured that you can't convey your health care wishes in any way, your Living Will immediately becomes a guide for your loved ones and health care providers.
If there is any doubt about whether you can understand and express your treatment choices, your doctor (after talking with your health care agent or family members) will decide whether your Living Will should take effect.
Must Doctors Follow Your Instructions?
Medical professionals must usually do all they can to follow the directions you give in a Living Will.
In limited situations, a doctor or hospital will be permitted to deny your wishes. This may happen if:
- you have asked for care that the health care provider believes would result in medically ineffective treatment or treatment that violates generally accepted standards of medical care
- your instruction goes against the conscience -- for example, violating a religious belief -- of the health care provider, or
- your instruction runs counter to a policy of the hospital or other care facility that is based on reasons of conscience.
Still, a health care provider cannot simply ignore your Living Will. A doctor or hospital who won't follow your instructions must promptly inform you or the person in charge of your health care decisions, and must try to transfer you to a provider that will honor your instructions. (In many states, this rule doesn't apply to pregnant women; see What Happens to My Living Will If I Am Pregnant?)
To find out what your state's Living Will is called, see What Are Living Wills and Medical Powers of Attorney Called in the District of Columbia?
To learn more about the specific topics you can address in a Living Will, see What Can I Cover in My Living Will?
If you're ready to make your Living Will, see The Best Sources for Health Care Forms in the District of Columbia.