Put Together an Advance Directive in an Afternoon

Photo: ernstl

The Terri Schaivo case was one of the most explosive events to rock the medical world. Sadly, the legal battles over what Terri would have wanted may have been prevented with a living will. Living wills usually include language stating what kinds of medical care you would or would not want to have in order to keep you alive, and they are intended to be followed in the event that you are unable to convey these directions yourself. In addition to having an advance directive, many states also require a durable power of attorney, which appoints someone who has been informed of your wishes to communicate on your behalf.

I’m no lawyer, so keep in mind that every situation will be different. I can speak from experience, however, and tell you that many people haven’t even thought of having a living will until it is almost too late. After I found out that I was pregnant with my fourth child, I was informed of the possible complications that would arise from having yet another planned cesarean section. I quickly put together an advance medical directive from free resources available from my local health and human services. Here’s how I did it:

Know Your State – Every state will have different requirements for what constitutes a legal living will. It is important that you follow the guidelines for your state to know what will be valid in the event of a legal dispute. My state of Nebraska has everything needed to get started on the Nebraska Health and Human Resources website. To find your state’s website, do a search for your state and “health and human services.” Many of the resources are free, and they can offer the same quality documents that legal document services charge for.  (Many states also require that these documents be notarized.)

Know Your People – Since many living wills are not enforceable if they are not made known to your friends or family, it is important that you know who you can trust. It is also important to note that many states require a separate durable power of attorney, which assigns someone the right to make decisions for you, if you are unable. Obviously, you want to choose someone that cares for and respects you greatly and will be sure that your wishes are carried out.

Know Your Wishes – If you haven’t given careful thought to the methods of life support and how you really feel about them, now is the time. There are many medical options, and it is important to know where you stand on the each of them. While some people will not be comfortable with feeding tubes or breathing machines, others will want everything done to keep them alive. Thinking through these questions may be unpleasant, but it is necessary.

Know Your Rights – Many of the pre-made forms available are very one-sided. My home state of Nebraska, for instance, offers limited language in their free downloadable living will. If you are leaning toward a total “Do Not Resuscitate” (refusal to receive any intrusive life-saving care), know that your directive can state this. If you want everything possible done to keep you alive, however, make sure you convey this. The National Right to Life offers state-specific definitions and help in their “Will to Live.” If you are using a template provided by your state to make your requests, feel free to add specific procedures that you feel strongly about. These are your wishes, so be clear about them. (If you are unsure about how to state your wishes, please consult a lawyer.)

Know Your Situation – As you grow older, your life wishes may change. You may also find that you need to make a change to your power of attorney. It is best to change your legal documents to reflect this right away. Your living will is only as good as the terms contained within it.

Know Where You Put It – This seems obvious, but you’d be surprised at the number of people who say they have a living will, but either don’t know where put it, or they don’t let family know where it is. Be sure that it is in a safe, fire-proof place, have copies if necessary, and let your power of attorney, as well as other family members, know where it is kept.

Our hope is that you will never need to use your living will. With a little planning, however, it just may save your life, or at least the quality of it.


(This article is not a substitute for sound advice from a licensed attorney. We encourage you to seek professional legal counsel with any questions you may have.)

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Guest's picture

One of those, you don't know how important this will be until you need it things. Unpleasant to think of but very good advice :)

Guest's picture

I downloaded my living will for my state from Compassionandchoices.org. You enter your name and address and then they email you instructions for downloading the forms. The downside is that they add you to their emailing list and ask for donations, but the forms are free and come with very clear instructions.

Guest's picture

This book is a useful resource for this kind of planning


Guest's picture

Good information! Too many people put this off.