EAGAN, Minn., Feb. 7, 2013 /PRNewswire/ -- Less than one in three Americans – 32 percent – 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, according to a new survey by FindLaw.com, the most popular legal information website. This means the vast majority of Americans – 61 percent – could potentially be leaving legal problems for family members if they are unable to communicate their health care wishes due to illness or loss of consciousness.
A living will, also known as a health care directive or directive to physicians, is a document in which a person can indicate his or her instructions in advance as to what medical treatments he or she wishes to receive 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 or majority of parents and children. But if family members and doctors have difficulty deciding on medical care, the matter could be decided in court.
"Without a living will, there is no clear directive for families and medical professionals to follow in terms of what types of care should be administered or withheld in the event that you become incapacitated or unable to communicate your medical treatment preferences," said Stephanie Rahlfs, an attorney and editor with FindLaw.com. "Living wills and health care directives let you specify which treatments you want, and who will make decisions when you're not able to. Otherwise, misunderstandings and disagreements among family and other care providers can result in delays in treatment or carrying out actions that are contrary to your wishes. Things need to be spelled out in advance through a living will. "
FindLaw offers the following tips for creating a living will:
Make sure your living will conforms to your state's laws
A living will must meet specific legal requirements. For example, some states require that it contain specific language and be signed in the presence of two qualified witnesses as well as certified by a notary public or a clerk of the superior court.
Make clear, consistent choices
To be effective, the document should 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
Keep the original in a place where family members can easily find it. If your state law allows, you may wish to sign several copies, have each witnessed and certified, and give an original to the appropriate people, such as family members and family physicians. However, if you change your mind and revoke or change your living will, make sure you destroy all originals and copies.
Appoint a health care agent
You may wish to designate a specific person as your health care agent by signing a health care power of attorney or general durable power of attorney document. The health care agent will then have the authority to carry out your wishes and make decisions regarding your care.
Review your living will if you move
A living will may not be valid if you move to another state. If you spend a significant amount of time in another state, you may want to sign a living will for each state. However, in some states, this may invalidate previously signed living wills.
Consult an estate-planning attorney
Living wills and powers of attorney may be invalidated or contested if there are errors or problems conforming to state law. You can find a qualified, experienced estate-planning attorney in your area using online lawyer directories such as FindLaw (http://lawyers.findlaw.com).
Additional free information on living wills, as well as other information on estate planning, including searchable directories for finding estate-planning attorneys in your area, can be found at the FindLaw Estate Planning Center at: http://estate.findlaw.com/.
The FindLaw survey was conducted using a demographically balanced survey of 1,000 American adults and has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3 percent.
Note to editors: Full survey results and analysis are available upon request.