A living will is a form of advance directive that provides specific instructions to health care providers about patient wishes to receive or refrain from receiving life-sustaining medical care in the event of a life-threatening illness, injury, or incapacitation. The document only has effect in the event that individuals are physically and/or mentally incapable of expressing their wishes at the time. Doctors and medical personnel are generally bound to adhere to the wishes patients have articulated in their living will, even if those wishes are contrary to those of the family or loved ones, and even if those wishes are inconsistent with those of the doctors or medical personnel.
Although a majority of states have living will statutes, they vary greatly in how far the law will permit individuals to dictate the extent of life-sustaining treatment they may refuse to receive. On one end of the spectrum are those states which only permit people to refuse “artificial means” of sustaining life (such as heart-lung machines, respirators, etc.) all the way to the other end of the spectrum, where less than a handful of states permit individuals to request artificial means to accelerate the timing of their death (such as Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act, or other “right to die” initiatives).