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Living Wills: What are they and do you need one?

LivingWills“No one can confidently say that he will still be living tomorrow” (Euripides)

We will all die. We have limited control over what will eventually kill us and when, but there is something that we can do now, whilst we are still physically and mentally capable of doing so, to express our wishes as to how we die.  Specifically, we can give instructions now as to what medical treatment we want to be given at the end.  For many people a nightmare scenario is to be kept artificially alive, quite possibly in pain and distress, long after your medical condition becomes hopeless and long after you have lost the ability to express your wishes for yourself.  If you are one of those people, consider executing a Living Will – but do it now, while you still can.

What is a “Living Will”?

A Living Will is your personal “advance health care directive”, executed by you before you lose the ability to do so, in which you tell doctors, hospitals and your loved ones what end-of-life medical treatment you do and do not consent to.  For many people it will be an expression of your wish to be allowed to die naturally, with the support of only such medical measures as will relieve your distress and pain without pointlessly prolonging your life.  It will speak for you when – and only when – you are no longer capable of doing so yourself.  

It will be easier for your family and doctor to make the necessary decisions on your behalf if you have previously run through with them any “What if …..?” scenarios that particularly concern you (or them), and if your wishes in each such scenario are clearly expressed and understood.   Most importantly, make sure that everyone knows exactly where your Living Will is – they may need to find it in a hurry. 

You also need a “Last Will and Testament”!

Note that a Living Will isn’t a “will” in the normal sense of a “Last Will and Testament” regulating the distribution of assets to your heirs after you die.  You certainly do need to execute such a will right now if you don’t already have one, but a “Living Will” is a very different thing.  You need both.  

Is a Living Will valid?

This isn’t the same as euthanasia or “assisted suicide”, which remain unlawful in South Africa, as well as running foul of many people’s moral/cultural/religious objections.  But whereas euthanasia and assisted suicide involve an active intervention to terminate life, a typical Living Will merely expresses your wish that nature be allowed to take its course when the time comes.

Although the enforceability of your Living Will cannot be guaranteed (the legal principles involved are yet to be tested in our courts), at the very least it should make it easier for your loved ones (and the medical professionals charged with caring for you at the end) to take hard decisions if and when they need to be taken.

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