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The use of living wills in estate planning

A California resident may wonder about the preparation of a living will, which is a written expression that indicates how someone wants to be treated in given medical situations. An individual may detail wishes for or against life-sustaining measures. Similarly, preferences for tube feeding and other means of providing hydration and nourishment may be expressed.

It is critical that an individual clearly understand the implications of the language used in a living will due to the fact that some definitions may include unanticipated consequences. For example, an individual using a breathing device to address chronic obstructive pulmonary disease may be affected by noting that assisted breathing devices not be used for sustaining life. While one might presume that life-saving breathing machines refer to ventilators or heart-lung machines, the COPD equipment might fit the category of assisted breathing device and be withheld. It is also important to recognize the philosophical and religious implications of one's decisions documented in a living will. While living wills are typically considered in light of terminal illnesses or injuries, it is also possible in most states to include conditions related to cases of a permanent unconscious state in which no brain activity is detectable.

A living will does not apply to situations that are unlikely to result in an end of life. Typically, this element of estate planning is intending to provide clarity of one's wishes in cases where death is likely without intervention. One's decision to refuse life-sustaining measures does not mean that pain relief solutions such as medication would be denied.

Someone who has definite opinions about end-of-life decisions related to providing or not providing life-sustaining treatment may want to review documents and definitions with an estate planning attorney prior to signing them. This will allow for clarification on issues such as COPD treatments and other issues to avoid misunderstandings.

Source: American Bar Association, "Estate Planning FAQ", October 06, 2014

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