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Legal Dictionary

living will

Legal Definition of living will

Noun

  1. A document that sets out guidelines for dealing with life-sustaining medical procedures in the eventuality of the signatory's sudden debilitation. Living wills would, for example, inform medical staff not to provide extraordinary life-preserving procedures on their bodies if they are incapable of expressing themselves and suffering from an incurable and terminal condition.

Related terms


Definition of living will

Noun

living will (plural living wills)

  1. (law) A document, made by a person when still legally fit to do so, expressing his desire to be allowed to die instead of being kept alive by artificial means, in the event of being severely disabled or suffering from a terminal illness.

Further reading

The living will is the oldest form of advance directive. It was first proposed by an Illinois attorney, Luis Kutner, in a law journal in 1969. Kutner drew from existing estate law, by which an individual can control property affairs after death (i.e., when no longer available to speak for themselves) and devised a way for an individual to speak to his or her health care desires when no longer able to express current health care wishes. Because this form of “will” was to be used while an individual was still alive (but no longer able to make decisions) it was dubbed the “living will.”

A living will usually provides specific directives about the course of treatment that is to be followed by health care providers and caregivers. In some cases a living will may forbid the use of various kinds of burdensome medical treatment. It may also be used to express wishes about the use or foregoing of food and water, if supplied via tubes or other medical devices. The living will is used only if the individual has become unable to give informed consent or refusal due to incapacity. A living will can be very specific or very general. An example of a statement sometimes found in a living will is: “If I suffer an incurable, irreversible illness, disease, or condition and my attending physician determines that my condition is terminal, I direct that life-sustaining measures that would serve only to prolong my dying be withheld or discontinued.”

More specific living wills may include information regarding an individual's desire for such services such as analgesia (pain relief), antibiotics, hydration, feeding, and the use of ventilators or cardiopulmonary resuscitation. However, studies have also shown that adults are more likely to complete these documents if they are written in everyday language and less focused on technical treatments.

Living wills proved to be very popular, and by 2007, 41% of Americans had completed a living will. In response to public needs, state legislatures soon passed laws in support of living wills in virtually every state in the union.

However, by the late 1980s public advocacy groups became aware that many people remained unaware of advance directives and even fewer actually completed them. In part, this was seen as a failure of health care providers and medical organizations to promote and support the use of these documents. The public's response was to press for further legislative support. The most recent result was the Patient Self-Determination Act of 1990, which attempted to address this awareness problem by requiring health care institutions to better promote and support the use of advance directives.

However, as living wills began to be better recognized, key deficits were soon discovered. Most living wills tended to be limited in scope and often failed to fully address presenting problems and needs. Further, many individuals wrote out their wishes in ways that might conflict with quality medical practice. Ultimately, it was determined that a living will alone might be insufficient to address many important health care decisions. This led to the development of what some have called “second generation” advance directives - the “health care proxy appointment” or “medical power of attorney.”

Living wills also reflect a moment in time, and may therefore need regular updating to ensure that the correct course of action can be chosen. Mangal Kapoor has recently written an article for the Mail Online discussing his experiences with his mother's living will and his concerns.

References:

  1. Wiktionary. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.



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