Unless you work in a hospital — or watch medical dramas on television — you may have never considered why you would need a health care directive.

You certainly wouldn’t be alone.

According to a recent FindLaw.com survey, less than one in three Americans have a living will, spelling out whether they want life-sustaining medical care in case they are incapacitated or otherwise unable to communicate their medical treatment preferences.

That means that most Americans are leaving their loved ones to grapple with difficult decisions. It seems pointless when you consider how easy it is to create a living will.

A living will — also called a health care directive or directive to physicians — is a document in which a person can indicate medical treatment instructions in the event he or she is unable to communicate those wishes due to terminal illness or permanent unconsciousness. Under certain conditions, it permits doctors to withhold or withdraw life support systems.

In the absence of a living will, medical care decisions are generally made by a spouse, guardian, health care agent, a majority of family members, or even a court.

Here are a few tips you should consider when creating a health care directive.

  • Make sure the document conforms to your state’s laws, and give an original to the appropriate people, such as family members and family physicians. If you make changes to your living will, destroy all copies on the previous version.
  • Make clear, consistent choices. Specify not only whether you want extraordinary lifesaving measures, but also whether you wish to receive pain medication, artificial nutrition or hydration.
  • Store extra copies of the document, and keep the original in a place where family members can easily find it.
  • Review your living will if you move to a different state. If you split your time between states, consider executing a health care directive in each of those states.
  • Living wills and powers of attorney may be invalidated or contested if there are errors or problems conforming to state law, so consider consulting an estate planning attorney to assist you.

If you want to learn more about living wills, you can find additional resources at FindLaw.com, the leading provider of free intelligent legal information online.

– Michelle Croteau, Director of Marketing Communications
with Robyn Hagan Cain, FindLaw Audience Team

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