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Writing a living will can be daunting: where to start?

by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief

Many people are given a living will form when they see their doctors. Clinics and hospitals are beginning to recognize the importance of people writing down their feelings about the kind of care they would want should be rendered incapable of making those decisions themselves. Making your wishes known is the purpose of a living will. However, many people don't know where to start.

It's common for people to put off starting a living will. Since they don't know where to start, the duty becomes something they "really need to do "sometime." I've found one effective way for some people to kick off the process is to visit the Web site www.agingwithdignity.org.

This site has an abundance of good information on end-of -life issues, but their main goal is to distribute their booklet "Five Wishes." This booklet, available for $5 and produced in many languages, is an excellent guide to help people thorough the end-of-life decision making process.

You can follow it, filling in the form as you go, and have it notarized. Then you would want to put it with your other legal documents. Alternately, you can use it as a guide to discover your own feelings about end-of-life issues and to help walk you through the process before you see your attorney to draw up a final draft.

Living Wills: "Five Wishes" Is a Guide

"Five Wishes" has, as the name implies, five main categories.

  • Who you want to make health care decisions for you when you can't make them
  • The kind of medical treatment you want or don't want
  • How comfortable you want to be
  • How you want people to treat you
  • What you want your loved ones to know

Living Wills: Procrastination is Natural

From personal experience, I can say that getting started is the hardest part. When I finally got around to drawing up my legal end-of-life work with the aid of an attorney, I had done some research. I knew what I wanted and didn't want, but I didn't know how to put my thoughts it in writing.

I know I can trust my children to keep me going, but will they know when it's time to let me go? What if something so unusual happens that I don't have it covered in writing? How do I say more than something vague such as, "Don't keep me alive artificially if I can no longer be myself." These are deep issues and can be very subjective and fluid.

I did find wording perfectly and succinctly phrased to suit me. I stumbled on it by accident.. Quite frankly, I don't even remember where I got that well-worded paragraph, but with a few alterations, it now resides in the living will portion of my health directive.

By ordering "Five Wishes," you would have a similar guide. You can wander as far from the directions as you want or follow it to the letter.

Living Wills: Share It, Don't Hide It

Just be sure that you don't fill it out and put it in a drawer. If you do that, no one will know what you wrote down. You need to have copies made for your hospital and clinic records, copies for the person or people you assign as your health decision proxies, and a copy to put with your other legal papers. If no one has your living will when they need to make life and death decisions for you, or they have to go searching for one, you may or may not get the care you would like.

Living Wills: Do I Need an Attorney?

I strongly recommend that you take the idea of a living will one step farther and have an estate attorney draw up a health directive. This generally includes a living will which you will write, but has more legal authority and can hold up better in court.

Sometimes we all need a little push to do what we need to do. A guide such as "Five Wishes" can do that. Then see an estate attorney to finish the process. You should like a load has been lifted once you are done.