Advance Health Care Declarations (Living Wills)
If you need to consult with an attorney regarding a living will, please contact the Erie County Bar Association's Lawyer Referral Service.
While all of us are concerned with medical care in the event we suffer a medical emergency, many of us are also concerned about so-called "heroic measures" when medical treatment cannot save our lives but only prolong the process of death.
Pennsylvania law allows you to make decisions about your medical care if you are terminally ill or permanently unconscious and are not able to communicate rational decisions to your doctor. This is accomplished through a properly drafted living will. A living will be distinguished from a “health care power of attorney”, which is a document in which instructions about medical care are given for someone who is not terminally ill or permanently unconscious.
What many call a "living will" actually is an advance health care declaration - a written statement which states a concern that extraordinary medical treatment is withheld if it would not improve our medical condition, but instead delay the inevitability of death. It also allows you to designate those treatments you do want, to relieve pain, etc. The document can also address your wishes regarding organ donation.
It is important to note that for many years Pennsylvania had a simple, two-page living will form. Several years ago a new statue was passed because of concerns expressed by the medical community that the two-page form did not provide specific guidance and therefore failed in its essential purpose. The new form is longer and more complex but does comprehensively deal with the end of life issues. This form should be drafted by an attorney.
Without a properly drafted living will, you should assume that all medical decisions will be made to preserve and extend your life.
No one is required to have a living will. If a person does not have a living will and becomes terminally ill or permanently unconscious, and is unable to communicate his or her wishes about treatment, then treatment decisions will be made without your input.
Because of the complexity of the form and the importance of the matters involved, advance health care declaration forms should be prepared by your attorney. If you need treatment at a hospital or care at a facility, you may be asked if you have a living will.
As the end of life approaches so long as you are able to intelligently communicate your wishes, they will be respected. But if you are not able to express your own wishes because of diminished mental capacity, unconsciousness or a terminal medical condition, then decisions about your care will be made by others designated by statue unless you have a living will on file. If you have a properly drafted living will, you can designate family members or friends who will have the authority to speak for you on these matters, if you cannot speak for yourself.
The whole purpose of the living will is to assist your doctor and family in carrying out your wishes at a critical stage of life. Therefore, it is important that one living will document be placed in your doctor’s file now, and that those who you choose to speak for you also have access to the living will documents. You should discuss your end-of-life wishes with the person you have named to make decisions when you are unable. This will give the person the confidence to know that they are doing the right thing and following your wishes when the time comes. Without a properly drafted living will on file, the state statute will determine who makes these decisions for you. 2/18