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Frequently Asked Questions About Living Wills

Authored By: D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center


What is a Living Will?

Living Wills allow you to make your own decisions to direct which types of life-sustaining treatment, if any, you would like to receive if you have a terminal illness or if you are in a permanent coma.

How does a Living Will differ from a Last Will and Testament?

A Last Will and Testament is a legal document that expresses what you want done with your property, including your money, after your death.

A Living Will is completely different from a Last Will and Testament. A Living Will deals with how you wish to be treated when you are dying. It has nothing to do with money or possessions.

What does a Living Will do?

A Living Will tells your doctors which kinds of treatment you do or do not want if you have a terminal illness or are in a permanent coma.

Once I've signed a Living Will, how long does it last?  Can I change my mind?

A Living Will lasts until you cancel it. You may change your mind after signing a Living Will. If you wish to cancel your Living Will, you should tear up your copy and notify other people (such as family members and doctors) who also have a copy.

Does a doctor have to honor my Living Will?

NO. Doctors may refuse to honor your Living Will because of their personal, religious or spiritual beliefs, or because it is the policy of the hospital or the nursing home where you are being cared for. However, your doctor(s) or the facility should help your family locate another doctor or facility that will honor your wishes.

How do I make a Living Will?

A Living Will must be made in writing and witnessed by at least two adults. There are additional rules for witnessing and signing a Living Will.

  • The witnesses must be adults who affirm that you are of sound mind and that signing the Living Will is your own choice.
  • You cannot witness your own Living Will.
  • Neither your health care provider nor an employee of your health care provider can witness your Living Will.
  • At least one of the witnesses should not be related to you by blood, marriage or adoption.
  • You must sign your Living Will while the witnesses watch you.
  • The witnesses must sign the Living Will while you watch them.
Do I have to have a lawyer to make a Living Will?

No. The law does not require that a lawyer prepare your Living Will. However, you should ask a lawyer if you do not completely understand everything, or if you have any questions about your Living Will.

Should my doctor be involved in preparing my Living Will?

Not necessarily. A doctor is not required to be involved in this process. However, it may be wise to ask your doctor his or her feelings about honoring your Living Will and ask about the policy on Living Wills at the hospital where he or she practices.

Once I've made a Living Will, what should I do with it?

Once you have signed your Living Will and your witnesses have also signed it, you should have several copies made. The original should be kept with your other important papers, like your Will. These papers should be kept in a place where someone can find them. They should NOT be placed in a safe deposit box, as that will likely not be opened until after your funeral.

It is also important to give copies of your Living Will to other important people, like family members and doctors.

Last Review and Update: Mar 01, 2019
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