While most people are familiar with a last will and testament, there is an important document that isn’t always top of mind: a living will. A living will could come in especially handy and gives your loved ones peace of mind should you be mentally incapacitated or in a coma, and unable to make medical decisions for yourself.

What is a living will?

Simply put, a “living will” is a written instruction that details a person’s wishes about future medical treatment in circumstances in which they aren’t able to make informed decisions and give their consent. To make a living will, a person must be over the age of medical consent and sound of mind.

A person’s living will can nominate someone to make medical decisions on their behalf. However, it’s crucial to bear in mind that a general power of attorney won’t be enough, as the person who granted the power of attorney would no longer able to exercise judgment or give consent.

Of course, it must be made clear that South Africa doesn’t have specific laws in place that deal with the validity or enforceability of living wills, but it is still an extremely valuable document to have. As it stands at the moment, South Africans can refuse medical treatment (even if it causes death) unless a specific law states that a doctor must provide certain treatment. But, in terms of a living will, the South African Medical Association has stipulated specific guidelines for medical practitioners to adhere to. 

Patients frequently believe that an instruction to refuse life-saving or sustaining treatment will be honoured under all circumstances. The reality of medical practices makes this impossible. If an advance directive is specific to a particular set of circumstances it has no force outside those circumstances. And, if a directive is so general that it applies to all possible events that could arise, doctors could view it as too vague to give clear directions about the patient’s wishes.

5 Reasons Why You Need a Living Will:

  1. A living will speaks for you when you cannot speak for yourself. For example, if someone is in a coma and there is no reasonable chance of recovery, a living will could state whether or not the patient wishes to be kept alive through artificial life support.
  2. Having a living will in place spares your loved ones from making life-or-death decisions. It will be up to you whether or not you want to remain on life support, for instance. This will also eliminate any emotionally straining arguments family members might have over the situation.
  3. The document will also let you have a say in specific medical procedures and organ donation. The latter is particularly important for healthy individuals, as their organs could be harvested and used to give someone else another chance at life.
  4. The financial burden will be lessened. Being on life-support, especially when there is no reasonable chance of recovery, is incredibly expensive. And while it might seem heartless to put a price on life, medical bills could be devastating for many families.
  5. A living will gives you peace of mind. Because life is so unpredictable, you want to make tragic situations as easy as possible for yourself and your family.

What a living will cannot state.

You cannot include instructions or directives for euthanasia or doctor-assisted suicide. You are entitled to request for specific treatments to be withheld or withdrawn, but you cannot ask a doctor to end your life.

How to draw up a living will.

Drawing up a living will isn’t time-consuming, and while you can do it yourself, it’s always best to have a lawyer assist you with the process. It is, however, recommended that an advance directive should be drafted in conjunction with medical advice and counselling. Naturally, the living will should be accessible, so it’s advisable to inform your family of the living will’s location and/or give them copies. It’s also wise to give medical practitioners who treat you regularly copies. 

As with many things in life, people change their minds. Thus, it’s vital to review your living will regularly, and once it is updated, destroy the irrelevant copy. At the end of the day, it’s all about peace of mind and knowing that your loved ones aren’t put in a position to make difficult decisions without your input.