A living will, often referred to as an advance directive, is a legal document that provides instructions on the type and extent of care you wish to receive should you become incapacitated.
In Canada, a living will allows you to appoint a caregiver to make decisions about your personal care and details the conditions in which specific medical treatments will be performed and for how long.
Living Will vs. Regular Will
A living will is not the same as a regular will. A regular will takes effect after you pass away. A living will works while you’re still alive, hence the name, ‘living’ will. However, if you are creating a regular will, it’s the perfect time to create your living will.
Living Will vs. Power of Attorney
A general power of attorney document covers legal and financial decisions but does not detail your wishes for end-of-life care. That’s what a living will is for. A living will is essentially a power of attorney for personal care decisions.
What Does a Living Will Include?
Living wills address, but are not limited to, the following information:
- Names a Health Care Proxy
- Lays Out Decision-Making Powers
- Provides Instruction for Medical Procedures
- Provides Instruction for the Care of Loved Ones
Let’s take a closer look at each of these living will components.
NameS a Health Care Proxy
A key component of a living will is the naming of a healthcare proxy, someone responsible for making decisions on your behalf should you become incapacitated. While the rules vary slightly by province, your healthcare proxy should be a legal adult (18 or 19).
In Ontario, you can be named as a healthcare proxy if you are 16 or over. Your proxy must be fully capable of making decisions on your behalf. A healthcare proxy is usually a spouse, adult child, or another close relative.
Lays Out Decision-Making Powers
Once you’ve established who your healthcare proxy will be, you must decide which decision-making powers they will have. For example, you can give them limited or full authority to act on the instructions in your living will. You can even empower your healthcare proxy with the ability to override your instructions.
Provides Instruction for Medical Procedures
The primary purpose of your living will is to provide doctors and family members with instructions on the procedures you want them to perform and for how long, if you become incapacitated.
By including this information in an advance directive, your loved ones won’t be left trying to guess about the care you wish to receive. It can also reduce the chances of a dispute among loved ones about what should happen.
Here are just some of the medical procedures and care you may address in your living will:
Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR): If your heart stops beating, do you want doctors to perform CPR, and if so, how long.
Blood Transfusions: Some people lose blood during surgery and require a blood transfusion. You can decide whether or not to consent to a transfusion and under what conditions. People with certain religious beliefs may oppose blood transfusions and include this in their advance directives.
Dialysis: If you’re kidneys begin to fail, dialysis may be required to remove waste from your blood and keep your body functioning. If unresponsive, your living will can instruct doctors and your healthcare proxy on whether to use dialysis and for how long.
Mechanical ventilation: If you can no longer breathe on your own, a mechanical ventilator can control your breathing. Do you want to be placed on a ventilator? If so, how long should it continue?
Organ and Tissue Donations: If you want to donate your organs, you can provide these instructions in your living will. You need to be kept on life-support until your organs can be removed.
Life-support: Many people can survive for extended periods on life support, even when recovery is unlikely. In your healthcare directive, you can indicate if and when you consent to be placed on life-support and for how long. Using the previous example, some patients may decide to remain on life-support solely for the purpose of organ donation.
Palliative Care: Palliative care is specialized medical care provided to patients with a serious illness, like cancer or heart failure. Palliative care includes, but is not limited to, end-of-life care. Many patients become eligible for palliative care as soon as they are diagnosed with a terminal illness, but they continue to receive treatment for the symptoms of their illness. In your health care directive, you may want to indicate your desires regarding how palliative care should be administered.
Provides Instruction for the Care of Loved Ones
If you become incapacitated, who will make decisions about the care for minor children? Most people know to include this information in a regular will, but what happens while you’re still alive? You can provide these types of instructions in your living will.
How Do I Create a Living Will?
While a lawyer can assist you with creating a legal will, it’s not necessary. Online tools are available to help you create a living will, or you can obtain instructions directly from the province where you live.
For example, the BC government offers an Advance Care Planning Guide for residents of that province, which provide instructions on how to create an advance directive for personal care. For $3.50, residents of Saskatchewan can purchase and download an Advance Care Directive form. And Ontario provides specific instructions on creating a living will for residents of that province.
Where Should I Keep My Living Will?
If possible, you should provide a copy of your living will to your healthcare proxy and doctors. You may want to provide a copy to other close family members. At the very least, you should inform them of your living will to avoid surprises if the situation ever arose where it was required. Of course, keep your own copies safely stored in a safety deposit box or a secure location in your home.
Advance Directives Aren’t Just for the Elderly
Many assume that living wills and other advance directives are concerns for the elderly, not something younger adults need to worry about. But that’s not the case.
Living wills guide doctors and caregivers in cases of terminal illness or if you are gravely injured in an accident. For example, you can fall into a coma at any age. Who will make the potentially lifesaving decisions for you?
Have You Created Your Living Will?
Every Canadian should be able to make decisions about the medical treatment they receive. Unfortunately, there are times when patients lose the capacity to make those important decisions for themselves.
By creating a living will, you are maintaining your right to make medical decisions and instructing health care providers on important advance care directives. If you haven’t created a living will, there’s no better time than the present.
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