Feature Archive

Making Your Last Wishes Known

WebMD Feature

July 7, 2000 -- Laws in every state have made it clear: You have the fundamental right to make a decision in advance about whether to accept or refuse medical treatment if you become gravely ill. You can exercise this right through an advance directive, a legal document that provides clear directions to physicians and caregivers about how you wish to be treated should you become unable to communicate.

According to a 1991 Gallup poll, 75% of Americans feel advance directives are a good idea, yet only 20% actually complete them. By taking the steps to prepare an advance directive before a medical crisis arises, you can make decisions thoughtfully and ensure that your wishes concerning end-of-life treatment will be honored. And remember: These directives are not just for the elderly. Illness and accidents in particular befall younger people as well.

There are two main kinds of advance directives:

  • A living will tells your health care providers what kind of medical care you want to receive -- or have withheld -- if you become critically ill and are unable to communicate your wishes. It can contain general statements of philosophy as well as more specific instructions detailing your desires under various conditions.
  • A medical power of attorney, or proxy, names another trusted person as a decision-maker for you if you become unable to make your own decisions.
Requirements for advance directives vary from state to state, so it's important to check before you write one. You can use a lawyer to help you draft your directive or do it on your own. You can obtain free, state-specific, do-it-yourself forms from Partnership for Caring, a nonprofit group that invented the living will in 1967 and counsels people about end-of-life issues. You can reach them at 1-800-989-9455 or online at http://www.partnershipforcaring.org.