Compose a Living Will
Last spring, America watched the family of Terri Schiavo wrestle painfully with a life-and-death issue: Would she have wanted to live on in a "persistent vegetative state," or would she have wanted her family to remove the feeding tube keeping her alive? You no doubt resolved to make sure your own family would never have to face a similar nightmare. You were going to prepare a living will.
Did you? To procrastinate is human; to get a second chance, divine. Here's what you need to do to accomplish this critical task.
Bone up on the basics. You can spell out your end-of-life wishes in an "advance healthcare directive." You'll need to address two major issues: designating someone to make healthcare decisions for you if you can't (accomplished through a durable power of attorney for healthcare, sometimes called a healthcare proxy) and deciding what kind of medical care you want if you become severely ill or injured (that's the living will, or its equivalent if your state is one of the handful that don't have a living-will law).
Hire a professional. Because state laws for creating and validating a living will vary, it's worth ponying up the roughly $250 to $500 that it will cost to hire an attorney to help you through the process. "You're talking about what you want done at the end of your life, and you want to make sure it's done right," says Kyle Christensen, spokesman for FindLaw.com, a popular website for free legal information and forms. An estate- or elder-law attorney will know what your state requires. Go to the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (naela.org ) to find a certified elder-law attorney in your area.
Pick a healthcare agent. Often times the agent is a spouse or an adult child; the key is to pick someone who knows you well and will be able to do what you would wish if you become incapacitated, even if it's different from what he or she would choose. Experts recommend naming just one person and perhaps an alternate. Decision by committee only opens the door to painful squabbling.
Write the living will. This document may be as open ended or as specific as you wish. You'll need to consider under what conditions you'd want to be kept alive through artificial respiration, and you should also address whether you'd want food and hydration through artificial means. This is also the vehicle to discuss organ donation and burial instructions.
The medical issues are complicated, and before you make a blanket statement like "I'd never want to be placed on a ventilator," make sure that you wouldn't want that under any circumstances--not only if you were in a deep coma but also if you were unconscious but had a good likelihood of recovering. "I like to create flexibility in these documents," says Christine Albright, chair-elect of the American Bar Association's section on real property, probate, and trust law. "There are just too many variables, and you don't know what the science will be." An ABA questionnaire can help you and your family work through these issues (box, Page 91).
Tell your healthcare agent, doctor, and other family members what you want. There's no substitute for conversation to clarify your wishes. "We can keep people going for such a long time," says Donna Bashaw, president-elect of NAELA. "You need to talk to your agent about when to stop trying. When do we say, 'That's enough,' and let you die naturally?"
Consider signing up with a document registry. If you are in an accident or fall ill out of state, how will that hospital know what your wishes are? Companies like DocuBank keep your information on file and give you a wallet card with an 800 number that healthcare professionals can call for access to your documents. Keep the originals at home, and give copies to your healthcare agent and your doctor. If it makes you more comfortable, carry a copy in your glove compartment and purse as well. After all, the aim is peace of mind.
Ready to get started? Here's where to go for online help.
Abalawinfo.org Advance healthcare directives are under "your family."
Naela.org Find an elder-law attorney (you shouldn't do it without one).
Docubank.com or uslivingwillregistry.com Register your documents.
This story appears in the December 26, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.