At one of our recent community events providing general information on estate law in Washington, there was considerable interest in the topic of living wills. A living will is a legal document by which a person states what end-of-life medical care they want in the case they become unable to communicate with doctors and other hospital staff.
The Evolution of the Living Will
The first case to reach the Supreme Court dealing with the right of individuals to refuse life-saving medical treatment was Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health, decided in early 1990. In a 5-4 decision, the Court affirmed both the right of competent individuals to refuse medical treatment under the Due Process Clause and the right of states to require clear and convincing evidence of an incompetent person’s formerly expressed intention to refuse life-saving medical treatment.
Cruzan did not create a uniform national standard, but rather left the specifics for the states to decide within a broad framework. Consequently, each state has passed laws detailing a process for meeting this standard in the form of a legal document commonly called a living will.
The Living Will in Washington
Washington lays out its own process for living wills in the Natural Death Act, chapter 70.122 of the Revised Code of Washington. As with many states, the Act allows any competent adult to execute a directive by signing in the presence of two witnesses, similar to the requirement when executing a will. The Act provides a sample text that individuals may use but states that directives may in addition include other specific directions as well.
As part of the Act, Washington attempted to create a statewide registry where individuals could store their living wills. The statewide registry accepted registrations through 2011, but is not currently available due to budgetary cuts. Despite the lack of a state-funded option, private companies such as the U.S. Living Will Registry (www.uslivingwillregistry.com) provide essentially similar services.
A living will can be made part of a comprehensive estate plan, along with other items such as wills, trusts, and powers of attorney. A good lawyer can ensure that all the necessary formalities are properly observed, and that you have the information you need to help ensure that your wishes are observed by health-care staff in the event of a medical emergency.
North City Law provides legal representation in estate and elder law, serving both King and Snohomish Counties. Our office is conveniently located in the North City district of Shoreline. Visit www.northcitylaw.com to learn more.
— By Paul Barrera, North City Law