Why do I need a living will?

A fellow caregiver asked...

Why do I need a living will?

Expert Answer

Barbara Repa, a Caring.com senior editor, is an attorney, a journalist specializing in aging issues, and the author of Your Rights in the Workplace (Nolo), now in its 10th edition.

You need a living will -- also called a healthcare directive, directive to physicians, or a declaration, depending on your state -- if you have strong feelings about the type of medical care you would want withheld or provided if you became unable to express those preferences. Such a document assures that if that happened -- for example, you became comatose -- doctors would be required to follow the wishes you set out in writing, or find another doctor willing to follow them.

Most living wills also allow you to name a trusted person to oversee that your wishes are carried out, or to use his or her own judgment in directing your medical care, if you become unable to do so.

If you have not completed any formal health care documents, the doctors who attend you will use their own discretion in deciding what kind of medical care you will receive. If there is a question about performing surgery or some other serious procedure, doctors will usually turn to a close relative for guidance. Friends or unmarried partners, who may be most familiar with your wishes, are rarely consulted.

When there is no healthcare directive, problems often arise when family members disagree about what treatment is best. The worst of these battles are resolved painfully -- through hospital dispute resolution procedures or sometimes in court.