If you become ill and are unable to make healthcare decisions, who would make those decisions on your behalf? Does your family know what your wishes are?
Healthcare directives provide instructions about your healthcare choices in the event you are unable to do so. It is not enough to verbally discuss your choices with your family. It is best to have these directives stated in legal documents.
What legal documents do I need?
Each state regulates the use of healthcare directives differently and requires specific forms. While the purpose of the forms is basically the same, they have different names and may require different information based on the applicable state law. Some of the different names used are advance health directive, living will, declaration, power of attorney for healthcare, and patient advocate designation. Check the laws in your state to be sure you have completed the correct documentation. You can download your state’s Advance Health Directives.
In general, healthcare directives include the following.
- A Living Will – This is a document that lets you state what type of medical treatment you do or do not wish to receive if you are too ill or injured to direct your own care. Living wills document your wishes regarding decisions about medical treatment, including the use of breathing machines, providing food and water through tubes or medical devices, and medications. Your wishes can be general or very specific. Making these decisions in advance will assist your family and will also ensure that your wishes are followed, even if they differ from your family’s wishes.
- A Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare – This document, also known as a healthcare proxy, designates a representative to make medical decisions for you. You decide how much power your representative will have. It is important to discuss your wishes with your proxy and make sure that he or she is comfortable with carrying out your instructions.
An Advance Healthcare Directive, used in some states, is a document that combines your living will and your durable power of attorney for healthcare into one document.
Who should have a copy of my healthcare directive?
A healthcare directive only works if your family, doctors, and healthcare providers know you have one and what it says! Keep the original in a safe place that is protected from theft and fire. Provide photocopies to your doctors, healthcare providers, and family and friends who might be involved with your healthcare. Some hospitals are willing to keep your directives on file. There are also services available that will store copies of your documents for a fee and, if needed, make them available to your healthcare providers on your behalf.
Power of Attorney
A power of attorney is a document that gives another person the right to make legal decisions on your behalf. It is important to select a trusted adult as your agent who will act in your best interest. The document can be written to cover a wide variety or a limited number of circumstances. Consult a legal advisor to determine how broad or narrow the authority you give in the power of attorney document needs to be.
- Periodically review your power of attorney designation and the amount of authority it provides.
- Revoke your power of attorney if circumstances change; you want to designate a different person to have power of attorney; or you want to change the amount of the authority.
- In order for a power of attorney to be valid upon mental incapacitation, it needs to be a durable power of attorney.
Can my agent make decisions that I may disagree with?
Unfortunately, the answer to that question is yes. Appointing an agent that you trust is a good start, but you may also want to do the following:
- Require the agent to periodically report to another person about the decisions he or she made on your behalf.
- Discuss your wishes with family and friends. They can monitor that your agent is acting on your behalf and file a complaint in the appropriate state court if the agent is not.
- Work to revoke the power of attorney.