In the past, the only way to create such a document would have been to go to an attorney, a paralegal document writing service, or use a form or book with boiler-plate text. But today you can create your own legal documents online or with software.
Web-based services such as LegalZoom.com, make it easy to create a living will online or you can purchase a software program such as Quicken WillMaker from Nolo, WillWriter Deluxe from Broderbund, or use a generalized legal document program such as Broderbund's Home and business Lawyer.
Before I get to the products, it's important to point out that legal software and websites aren't for everyone. Attorney and CBS News Legal Consultant Andrew Cohen recommends that most people seek the advice of a real live attorney to "ask questions and have someone with experience in the real world."
"You may think it's simple," says Cohen,"but when you get to the end of life, your loved ones might find that there was a mistake." He also warns that software may not be as flexible as an attorney and not as tailored to a particular individual's needs, situation or moral beliefs.
Barbara Repa, a California attorney who is an author of Nolo's WillMaker software, disagrees. "These situations are the most personal decisions in the world. Rather than consult an attorney, a better conversation is to talk with health care providers and family members."
She says that the software is tailored to meet the specific laws in each state. Nolo, which has been in the legal self-help business for 30 years, has an excellent track record when it comes to the legality of its documents.
While there is no doubt that some people would benefit by consulting an attorney, I can think of two advantages to using a program to create such a document.
For one thing, it's a lot cheaper than an attorney. Software or web-based will writing services typically cost $40 or less which won't buy you much time in a law office.
Another factor is that you don't need to wait or make an appointment. If you're inclined to write a living will or health care directive right this minute, you can do so by going to a website and filling out a form or downloading and using software. Depending on how you do it, your document might be ready to be signed, witnessed and legal within the hour.
Whatever you do, make sure you're using a document from a reputable company and make sure that the document you create is tailored for your state. "In some states, said Cohen, "a living will would not have been enough to affect Schiavo. In some cases, you need a medical durable power of attorney."
LegalZoom.com is an online resource for creating all sorts of basic business and personal documents including a living will. A basic living will costs $39. It takes a few minutes to fill out the forms online but you don't get the document immediately. The company will first have a paralegal review your document and then print it out and mail it. For an extra $3, they'll also send it by email, but, again, it's not immediate because of the review process.
One nice thing about this service is that you don't have to pay until you're done filling out the form. That means you can get the experience of trying it out for free. Also, because you fill out the forms online, you don't need to purchase a CD or download a large program.
The service creates both a living will and a health care power of attorney. The former states your preferences as to what type of treatment you should get under certain circumstances. The health care power of attorney appoints a person to make decisions for you. You can also appoint alternate people in case your first choice is not able to perform these duties.
Once you've entered your basic personal information, the website asks you to leave instructions on what should be done "if you have a terminal condition where there is no hope of recovery."
Your choices are: "I do not want to be kept on artificial life support" or "I want my life to be prolonged as much as reasonably possible."
If you say you don't want to be kept on life support, you're asked to specify under what conditions you want it removed. The choices are: 1. "If I have an incurable and irreversible condition and cannot survive without artificial life support." 2. "If I am in a permanent coma." or 3. "If I am in a persistent vegetative state."
LegalZoom.com's software also asks, "In the situations where you do not want life support, would you still like to have food and water (tube feeding)?" It sure is a shame that Terri Schiavo didn't create such a document.
Regardless of what you choose, you are then given an opportunity to provide further and more detailed instructions.
Once you're done stating your wishes, you can then specify who will make health care decisions for you if you can't make them yourself.
Nolo's Quicken WillMaker Plus is more extensive in two ways. The program, which costs $39 to download or $49 on CD, creates all sorts of family planning documents including a personal will (which deals mostly with property, not health), living trusts, child care instructions and a number of other documents including elder care and even pet care instructions along with a variety of other documents.
It's also more specific in terms of the questions it asks with an extensive amount of help and explanation at every step of the process.
For example, you can say you want "some life prolonging procedures but not others" and then select yes or no from a laundry-list of options including blood and blood products, cardiopulmonary recitation, dialysis, respirator and more.
When you're done, it creates a document for you to review onscreen and then print and sign. There are also instructions, which vary by state, as to whether you need witnesses, a notary or other conditions to make the document legal.
Another option, regardless of what software you use, is to just create a durable power of attorney, naming the person who will make decisions for you.
A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid