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Living Will

Advance health care directives, also known as a living will, are written statements that allow individuals to set out the conditions under which their lives should be prolonged by artificial means should they be rendered incompetent when suffering from a terminal condition, or should they become permanently unconscious.  Pennsylvania law provides for living will and states that an individual’s desire to withhold or withdraw medical treatment is not to be considered suicide, euthanasia, or homicide.

Under Pennsylvania law, your living will advises your family and friends of your wishes concerning artificial means of prolonging life so there is no question of what you “would have wanted”.  It also instructs health care providers whether or not to utilize medical means of prolonging your life, even if you are in a state of permanent unconsciousness with no hope of recovery.  Health care providers must follow the provisions of your living will should you become unable to provide instructions when medical decisions need to be made.  Pennsylvania law allows you to authorize the withholding or withdrawal of all treatment and procedures through your advance medical directive.

Your living will should contain specific directions setting out exactly what kinds of life-sustaining medical treatments and procedures you wish to be either initiated, continued, withheld or withdrawn.  A good example living will valid under Pennsylvania law is the Pennsylvania Advance Directive for Health Care Act’s sample declaration.  Pennsylvania law also states that a person’s choice to withhold or withdraw medical treatment is not to be considered suicide, euthanasia or homicide.

Declarations may be made and signed by all individuals who are of sound mind and at least 18 years of age.  An individual making a declaration is called a “declarant.”  Additionally, those who have graduated from high school or are married may also do so.  Two adults must witness the declaration’s signing, though witnesses may not also sign the declaration on behalf of the declarant.  Living wills are not required to be notarized.

When drafting your own advance health care directive, you should refer to the above-mentioned sample and consult with your physician or other health care providers to find out what kinds of medical treatments and procedures can be included in your declaration.  It’s also a good idea to consult with one or more Pennsylvania lawyers to ensure your declaration is legally binding and accurate.

Your living will becomes effective only after your attending physician makes a written diagnosis that you are incompetent and either in a terminal condition or in a permanent state of unconsciousness.  A second physician must then confirm this diagnosis in writing for the living will to kick into effect.

The Pennsylvania law called the Advance Directive for Health Care Law allows individuals to name a person to act as “surrogate” to make medical treatment decisions for should they ever become incompetent and either in a terminal condition or permanently unconscious.  A Pennsylvania lawyer will advise clients that it is best to make their wishes known in a written declaration, and to include a substitute surrogate should the first be unable or unwilling to fulfill the duties of a surrogate.   While you should make sure that the people you name as surrogates are willing to fill this role and understand your preferences and desires, circumstances can change, which is why you should name a substitute surrogate.

You should give copies of your signed and witnessed declaration and power of attorney to your physician, family, friends, clergy, lawyer, and your surrogates.  The original(s) should be held in safekeeping, preferably with your attorney, until such time that they have to be used. This will help prevent them from being used against your authorization, and help ensure the validity of the document should conflict arise.

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