The importance of a Living Will made headlines again on Monday evening during remarks from Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson. Last month, Thompson sidestepped a question about the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case. However, on Monday Thompson said he did so because he had to face a similar situation in his personal life with the death of his own daughter. Thompson’s remarks indicated that his daughter had been on life support and ultimately died on Jan. 30, 2002, six days after being brought unconscious to a hospital emergency room.

Thompson went on to say, "These things need to be decided by the family, and I was at that bedside, and I had to make those decisions with the rest of my family. I will assure you one thing, no matter which decision you make, you will never know whether or not you made exactly the right decision, Thompson said. " He added, "should be decided by families. The federal government and the state government, too — except for the court system — ought to stay out of it, as far as I’m concerned."

While Thompson’s remarks did not indicate whether his daughter Elizabeth Thompson Panici had a Living Will, it is reasonable to assume that the excruciating decisions the Thompson’s had to make as a family could have been avoided if Ms. Thompson, then age 38, had prepared a Living Will addressing the possibility of her permanent incapacity and shared her feelings with her family.

A Living Will, also referred to as an Advanced Health Care Directive, is a legal document that expresses specific instructions as to the course of medical treatment that is to be taken by caregivers, or, in some cases the refusal of certain types of medical treatment. Once executed, the Living Will does not have any force or effect until the individual is unable, due to their incapacity, to personally provide a caregiver informed consent to proceed with certain medical treatments.

An executed Living Will may declare that when a client is certified to be permanently unconscious, as is usually determined by the client’s attending physician and a second examining physician, that artificial life-support systems be disconnected or withheld altogether. The client may also elect to discontinue or prevent artificial nutrition and hydration through feeding tubes or intravenous methods.

I am the first to acknowledge that on the best of days, it is hard to conceive the issues concerning our own mortality, and understandably more difficult to talk about them. But I suggest that if you are able to set aside time to explore your own feelings about the end of your life or the potential for unexpected injury that could result in a terminal condition, and then express those wishes in a meaningful and legal document, the comfort and peace of mind you will bring — not only to yourself, but also to those closest to you — will greatly offset its difficulty.