Living Wills

A living will is a written document in which you inform doctors, family members and others what type of medical care you wish to receive should you become terminally ill or permanently unconscious.

When will a living will take effect?

A living will only takes effect after a doctor diagnoses you as terminally ill or permanently unconscious and determines you are unable to make or communicate decisions about your care.

How is a living will different from a durable power of attorney for health care?

Although there can be overlap, the focus of a durable power is on who makes the decision; the focus of a living will is on what the decision should be.

A living will is limited to care during terminal illness or permanent unconsciousness, while a patient advocate may also have authority in circumstances of temporary disability.

A durable power of attorney for health care may be more flexible because your patient advocate can respond to unexpected circumstances, but a living will might be honored without the presence of a third person making the actual decision.

What might a living will say?

You might express your wishes in general terms - "Do whatever is necessary for my comfort, but nothing further." Or, "I authorize all measures be taken to prolong my life."

You might instead state whether or not you wish specific medical interventions, such as a respirator, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), surgery, antibiotic medication, and blood transfusions. You could authorize experimental or non-traditional treatment.

Whichever approach you choose, you should express your wishes concerning food and water administered through tubes.

Is a living will legally binding on health care providers?

Although 47 states have statutes giving living wills legal force, Michigan has not passed such a law. However, based on a Michigan court decision, there is an argument living wills are binding in this state. No one, however, can provide absolute assurance your wishes will be honored.

Is it worth having a living will?

Yes. It is particularly important to have a living will if you don't have a durable power of attorney for health care. Your wishes cannot be honored if they are not known.

Can I have both a durable power of attorney for health care and a living will?

Yes. Your patient advocate can read your living will as an expression of your wishes. The living will might also be valuable if your patient advocate were unavailable when a decision needed to be made.

If you have both documents, make sure your wishes expressed in the documents are consistent.

What are the requirements for a living will?

Since there is no state law, there are no formal requirements. But it is strongly recommended the document be entitled, "Living Will;” be dated; signed by you; and signed by two witnesses who are not family members.

What does a living will look like?

View a sample living will courtsey of the State Bar of Michigan.

To locate free or low cost legal assistance:

  • Visit the home page and search for local assistance by entering your zip code in the box marked “Find a lawyer, organization or related service to help you with your problem.” or

  • Look under "attorneys" in the yellow pages to find your local legal aid office, or

  • Contact the Michigan State Bar Lawyer Referral Service at (800) 968- 0738. 

  • Persons age 60 or older, regardless of their income, may be able to receive free advice from the Legal Hotline for Michigan Seniors by calling (800) 347-5297.

This article appears courtsey of the State Bar of Michigan.