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What Is a Living Will or DNR Order?

by Kirk Fox

A living will is a document you can create that details what lifesaving medical procedures you do or don’t want performed on you in the event of your terminal illness or injury. It’s used when you are unable to speak your wishes.

Other names for this document include health care directive, advance directove, and most commonly known, DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order. But don’t let that name scare you: It doesn’t mean you must specify that you don’t want lifesaving procedures done on you. The document details your choice, whatever that might be.

How a Living Will Works

Your living will spells out which kinds of medical treatments doctors can perform on you. There are a number of types of medical care you can address in your living will. Here are the most common:

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  • Resuscitation may restart your heart if it has stopped. Methods include machines such as defibrillators, as well as cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), in which medical personnel perform chest compressions and blow breath into the lungs.
  • Tube feeding provides nutrients via IV or a tube inserted into the stomach in the event that you’re unable to eat.
  • Ventilation blows breath into the lungs via a machine if you can’t breathe properly on your own.

By creating your living will, you choose in advance which of these you want performed on you and which you don’t. For example, you could opt out of resuscitation but still specify that you want to be tube fed if you’re unable to eat, or vice versa, or whichever combination feels right for you.

You may want to do further research on each of these medical procedures before making a decision, to be sure you fully understand what each entails. There are cases in which any of these procedures can be damaging to the body, and often their sole effect is to put off the moment of death rather than to return you to a healthy life. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t choose them. You should just be sure you’re aware of the details of a procedure in order to make an informed decision about it.

It’s important to note that if you’re able to speak at the time medical care is needed, your spoken directive supersedes the specifications in your living will. For example, if your living will says you don’t want to be tube fed, but you clearly state that you do want that at the time that it becomes necessary, medical personnel will carry out the tube feeding procedure.

How to Create a Living Will

You can download a living will form to complete or you can write up your own document. Rules and regulations surrounding living wills and DNR orders differ from state to state, so to be sure you’re creating a legitimate document, talk to your lawyer or search online for your state’s regulations.

Once you’ve created your living will, make sure your loved ones know about it and that it’s easily accessible. You should also provide a copy to your primary care physician and another to the hospital you would use in the event of an emergency. The people who need to know your wishes must have access to your living will in order for your wishes to be carried out.

Power of Attorney

In some cases, a section is added to a living will that designates a specific person who can make medical decisions for you if you’re incapable of making them for yourself. This is called power of attorney (POA). It’s not always part of a living will: often, a separate document is created to designate power of attorney. Power of attorney for healthcare is also separate from power of attorney for finances, which allows another person to make financial decisions for you, pay your bills, and so on. (Read more about POA for healthcare and POA for finances.)

Living Wills After Death

Note that though it has a similar name, a living will is not to be confused with a last will and testament. The living will indicates whether you want to be kept alive via extreme measures, while your last will and testament details the distribution of your assets after your death.

Upon your death, the power conferred by your living will no longer applies. This is in contrast with your last will and testament, which has no power while you’re alive and is only applicable after your death.

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