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What Is a Living Will?

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A living will is a written document authorizing health care providers to withhold or withdraw life sustaining procedures in certain cases. A life-sustaining procedure is any medical procedure, treatment or intervention which utilizes mechanical or artificial means to sustain, restore, or supplant a spontaneous vital function, and which serves only to prolong the dying process.

A living will takes effect when you are diagnosed as being terminally ill and are not able to take part in the medical decision-making process. Two requirements must be met for someone to be considered in a "terminal condition." First, there must be no way to cure or reverse the condition. Second, it must be expected to result in either death within a relatively short period of time, or a state of permanent unconsciousness. An example would be a person in the final stages of cancer. If your attending doctor says you a terminal condition, another doctor must agree with that decision before life sustaining procedures can be withheld. A living will does not authorize your physician to withhold water, drugs or medical procedures that would control pain.

Without a living will, others will decide if life-sustaining procedures will be used for you. If you have a health care power of attorney, he or she will make the decision. If you do not have a health care power of attorney, the law states that the first person available from the following list will make the decision for you: a guardian, your spouse, an adult child (or a majority of your adult children who are available), a parent or parents, or an adult sibling.

If you are competent and over 18 years old, you can make a living will. You must sign and date the document. This must be done in front of a notary public or two adult witnesses. If signed by witnesses, only one can be an immediate family member. Neither witness can work for your health care provider. Once you have signed your living will, deliver copies to all of your health care providers. It is important to tell family members and your health care power of attorney that you have a living will.

You may revoke a living will at any time, and in any manner. Revocation of your living will is effective as soon as your doctor is told.


Iowa Legal Aid provides help to low-income Iowans. 

To apply for help from Iowa Legal Aid:

  • Call 800-532-1275. 
  • Iowans age 60 and over, call 800-992-8161.
  • Apply online at iowalegalaid.org

If Iowa Legal Aid cannot help, look for an attorney on “Find A Lawyer”   A private attorney there can talk with you for a fee of $25 for 30 minutes of legal advice.

*As you read this information, remember this article is not a substitute for legal advice.

Last Review and Update: Jun 25, 2019
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