Most people are familiar with a will or testament and understand the importance of having this legal declaration drafted, by which the testator nominates an executor to manage his or her estate and provide for the distribution of his or her property to beneficiaries when he or she dies.
But how many people have considered drafting a living will?
A living will do not deal with assets, heirs, and beneficiaries, but with the philosophy of death and dying, and should be considered carefully and drafted by a professional.
A living will is a legal document expressing a person’s wishes regarding life-prolonging medical treatment when that person can no longer voice his or her wishes. It is also referred to as an advance medical directive. A typical clause in a living will would read as follows:
If the time comes when I can no longer take part in decisions for my own future, let this declaration stand as my directive.
If I suffer from physical illness or impairment expected to cause me severe distress, rendering me incapable of rational existence, from which there is no reasonable prospect of recovery, I withhold my consent to be kept alive by artificial means and do not give my consent to any form of tube-feeding when I am dying; and I request that I receive whatever quantity of drugs and intravenous fluids as may be required to keep me comfortable and free from pain even if the moment of death is hastened. I withhold my consent to any attempt at resuscitation, should my heart and breathing stop and my prognosis is hopeless.
The living will tells the doctor and family that the patient does not consent to be kept alive artificially. It speaks for the patient at a time when the patient may be unable to communicate.
South African law and most religions accept the validity of the living will, but none of the main religions accept euthanasia. Euthanasia is against the law. Sean Davison, the respected UWC professor who helped his 85-year-old terminally ill mother, Patricia Ferguson, die in New Zealand by preparing a lethal dose of morphine, was arrested in New Zealand in September 2010 on an attempted murder charge.
It is important to have a properly drafted, legal living will avoid far-reaching and traumatic consequences for the loved ones that stay behind. Many lawyers who practice in the area of estate planning include a living will and a healthcare power of attorney in their package of estate planning documents.
The advantages of a living will
- The directives respect the patient’s human rights, and in particular his or her right to reject medical treatment.
- It encourages full discussion about end-of-life decisions.
- It also means that the medical staff and caregivers are aware of the patient’s wishes, and knowing what the patient wants means that doctors are more likely to give appropriate treatment.
- It will avoid the situation where the patient’s family and friends have to take the difficult decisions.
Disadvantages of a living will
- Drafting this document can be very depressing.
- The person may still be healthy and not in a position to actually imagine that he or she could ever be in the position where they would voluntarily give up living.
- When the time comes to act on the living will the patient might have changed his or her mind and it is then often difficult to amend the document.
Important points to consider
- The living will should not be incorporated or attached to the last will and testament, which is only acted upon after death.
- A living will do not become effective unless the patient becomes incapacitated; until then the patient will be able to choose the appropriate treatment.
- A certificate by the patient’s doctor and another independent doctor certifying that the patient is either suffering from a terminal illness or permanently unconscious, is required before the living will become effective. In the case of a heart attack, the living will do not take effect. A living will is only executed when ultimate recovery is hopeless.
- You have to notify your doctor and family of your living will and preferably have copies of the document available for the doctor, hospital, and family.