An image has been circulating on social media showing a tattoo on a man’s back. What makes this photo memorable is that this man’s tattoo is a living will – complete with witness signatures. While it’s certainly not necessary to permanently inscribe it on your body, having a living will is essential if you want to ensure that your end-of-life wishes are carried out when you cannot speak for yourself. This is what you need to know.

What exactly is a living will?

A living will is a legal document that comes into effect when you are still alive but your mental function is impaired and you are unable to make decisions or speak for yourself. Most often a living will prevents doctors from resuscitating you when there is a chance you might never recover or live a full life, or from keeping you on life support indefinitely when it becomes apparent that you are not going to regain consciousness.

For many people, the idea of living on with decreased mental capabilities or of being kept alive and held in some kind of limbo is intolerable, so they make the choice that no artificial intervention should keep them alive. It is extremely useful for families to have these kinds of documents in place, because people often have different opinions on how these situations should be handled – and fighting to resolve the matter in court is a lengthy and costly process.

Of course, a living will can also state that a doctor must take every possible step to keep you alive, no matter what the anticipated outcome. And a living will can also contain information about whether you would like to become an organ donor, although you should carry a card in your wallet or handbag covering this.

What you need to know

It is important to understand the practicalities of creating and storing your living will because by its very nature, if it ever needs to be used, you won’t be able to discuss it with anyone.

  • Your living will must not be a part of your last will and testament. Because your last will only comes into effect after your death, storing your living will with it defeats the purpose of providing instructions for your care while you are still alive.
  • The Living Will Society of South Africa advises that you make three copies of your living will, witnessed by two witnesses, and ask your doctor to keep one, keep one in your home in a location known to your family members and have one ready among your documentation for an in-patient file if you are ever admitted to hospital for any reason.
  • You can also lodge your will with the Living Will Society for a once-off cost of R80, so that anyone who knows the document exists can access a copy.
  • It is vitally important that you tell everyone in your family and who is responsible for your care that the document exists, and that they understand your wishes and are prepared to carry them out.
  • People who live in care – for instance, old-age homes – often ensure that their living wills are saved in their medical or admission files, so that the people responsible for their wellbeing can easily access their instructions.
  • You can create your own will with a clear explanation of what your requirements are, or you can use the sample will found at the Living Will Society’s website.
  • Some people are concerned that having a living will in place might invalidate their life insurance policy. It does not, as most people use their living wills to request that they are not kept alive by artificial means. They are certainly not instructions for assisted suicide.
  • You should review your living will every few years in case your outlook has changed in any way.

Your final words

As hard as it may be to think of a future in which a living will is necessary, it’s important to do it so that should the need ever arise, the document is in place. You don’t need to tattoo it on your back, but having a living will written up and stored as we’ve outlined above will go a long way to ensuring that your wishes are carried out, even if you can’t express them.