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Starting a living will

“Today” financial contributor Jean Chatzky talks about legal documents that will make decisions for you if you’re in a condition where you can’t express these things for yourself.
/ Source: TODAY

Yesterday the feeding tube was removed from Terri Schiavo, the 39 year-old woman in Florida who has been in a coma for nine years. While Terri’s husband believes he is carrying out his wife’s wishes by not keeping her alive artificially, her parents have waged a six-year battle to keep her alive. The tragic situation could have been avoided with a simple document called a living will, and by naming healthcare proxy. “Today” financial planner Jean Chatzky has advice on how to start one.

What’s a living will?
It’s a legal document that speaks to doctors and hospitals as well as family members to tell them what you want in the way of medical treatment — including life support — if you’re in a condition where you can’t express these things for yourself.

It goes hand and hand with a durable power of attorney for healthcare (also sometimes called a healthcare proxy). That document gives one person the ability to be the medical decision maker — just as a durable power of attorney for finances does for money-related issues — if you’re unable to make these decisions on your own.

According to data a 2002 National Council on the Aging survey, 74 percent of people believe that writing a living will is “very important” preparation for later life (in fact, it tied with building up your savings as the most important preparation for later life). Yet only 20 to 30 percent of people have actually written one.

How and when should you get one?
As the Schiavo case shows — Terri Schiavo was only 29 when she fell ill — it’s not a document that’s specifically for older people, although it’s often thought of that way. You can and should get both living wills and healthcare proxies as soon as you turn 18.

Is it expensive?
It doesn’t have to be. One document that covers both the living will and the healthcare power of attorney is called the Five Wishes Living Will. It’s put out by a not-for-profit called Aging With Dignity (, 1-888-5WISHES) that has backing from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. And it’s accepted in 35 out of 50 states. That makes it as close as the country has to a national living will document. The Five Wishes form isn’t free. Copies are $5 ($1 if you order more than 25). You can download free forms for your state at But I prefer the Five Wishes because it’s written both in plain English and in such a way that it will get you and your loved ones talking about what you would want — and how and where you would want it —- when facing a truly dire healthcare situation.

So how do you do it?
Fill out the forms — whichever ones you choose — for yourself. Then use that experience as an entrée to sit down with your spouse or parents or other loved one to say, “I want you to know about the choices I’ve made.” It will open the door for them to talk about what they’d want as well.

Chosing your healthcare proxy
What happens if the person you’ve chosen to be your healthcare proxy can’t do it when the time comes because they’re out of the country — or just because they can’t step up to the plate emotionally.

It’s always a good idea to have one if not two different back-ups. The Five Wishes document has a place to name in rank order, three people you’d like to make decisions for you.

Where do you put it when you're done?
Your family gets a copy, so do your doctor, your lawyer, and the people you name as your healthcare proxies.

Jean Chatzky is the financial editor for “Today,” editor-at-large at Money magazine and the author of “You Don’t Have To Be Rich: Comfort, Happiness and Financial Security on Your Own Terms.” Information provided courtesy of Jean Chatzky and Money magazine. Copyright © 2003. All rights reserved. For more financial advice, visit Jean Chatzky’s web site at: