Schiavo Case Sparks Interest in Living Wills

Detail of a sample living will, courtesy of the Medical Association of Georgia.

Detail of a sample living will, courtesy of the Medical Association of Georgia. hide caption

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The legal battle over Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged Florida woman whose life-sustaining feeding tube was removed Friday, has sparked new interest in the legal end-of-life directives known as living wills. NPR's Michele Norris discusses common questions about living wills with Dr. Barry Baines, associate medical director for Hospice of the Twin Cities and author of Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper.

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Living Wills: A Primer

  • A living will is a written set of instructions detailing the type of medical interventions you do and don't want to receive in the event that you become terminally ill, unconscious or otherwise unable to speak for yourself. It is also called an advance care plan or a health directive.
  • Most living wills are executed along with another document known as a durable power of attorney for health care decisions, which designates someone, usually a spouse or child, to make decisions for you if you become incapacitated. It's important to talk to your health care proxy about what you want.
  • An ethical will is a way to record and share your values, beliefs, hopes and life lessons with family, friends and your community. It is not a legal document. An ethical will can help identify important values to you, and that can make it easier to write a living will, if you're having trouble doing it.
  • The rules for filling out living wills vary from state to state. Some states require two distinct forms for the medical directives and the power of attorney, while others combine the two forms. State laws also differ on rules regarding who can sign a living will as a witness and how many witnesses are required.
  • Many states don't require a lawyer to write a living will. It's a good idea to check on your situation.
  • The nonprofit National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO), which represents hospice professionals, offers free, state-specific living will forms. Request information through the NHPCO's Web site:

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