There are some legal requirements that must be met in order to have a living will. You must be at least 18 years old and of “sound mind.” You must be able to sign the documents, or if unable to, you can direct someone else to sign them. Depending on state law, you may need witnesses and/or a notary public present. You can change or revoke your living will at any time, though it’s important to notify your doctors and family before doing so.
The living will takes effect when a doctor determines that you lack the capacity to make your own health care decisions. In some states, it’s possible to have a health care proxy take control of your medical care immediately. It may be preferable to have a trusted person in charge of your care. We’ll talk about health care proxies later in the article.
Doctors are required to obey a living will. However, some hospitals have policies about living wills that they’re required to tell you about when you’re admitted for care. (Some hospitals even require you to have a living will in order to be admitted.) If the hospital’s policy somehow conflicts with your living will, most state laws require that they make a reasonable effort to transfer you to another hospital that will follow the document. Pregnancy is one major exception when doctors may not be bound to the terms of a living will. In fact, in many states, a living will is not valid at all if a woman is pregnant. In other cases, for a woman in her second or third trimester, doctors may disregard the living will -- even if the woman’s condition is terminal or the living will mandates no extraordinary measures -- in hopes of keeping the woman alive until the baby can survive outside the womb.
If for some reason you don’t have a living will, medical decisions are left to the discretion of the doctors treating you, but they may request authorization from close relatives for serious procedures.
In the next section, we’ll look at the contents of a living will.