Making Wishes Known Through Living Wills and Health Care Proxies

While no one likes to consider mortality or end-of-life decisions, estate planning is an important process to protect your family and loved ones. It is important to have your wishes known in an enforceable fashion long before any medical conditions arise which make it difficult for you to communicate. Planning ahead is especially important to deal with potential medical crises

Proper advance planning can prepare for such unexpected situations. Two important documents are the health care directive (or "living will") and the health care proxy.

While you are not required by law to have a health care directive or a health care proxy, both of these estate planning documents can bring clarity to uncertain times.

What Is a Health Care Directive?

A health care directive, also known as an advance medical directive or a living will, is a document that describes what should happen in case you are in a dire medical situation and are unable to speak for yourself.

The health care directive becomes active when your attending physician or health care team determines that you are unable to communicate your wishes. This could happen in the case of a physical or mental incapacity.

The living will can include both broad and specific information. For instance, you can write about your values when it comes to end-of-life care, and you can specify whether you would want a feeding tube.

Another aspect of living wills is the ability to name an agent to make health care decisions on your behalf. The living will can provide guidance for the agent.

Importantly, a health care directive will help guard your loved ones from the pain of not knowing whether they have made the health care decisions you would have wanted.

What Is a Health Care Proxy?

A health care proxy is also known as a durable medical power of attorney and a health care surrogate. It is a document that determines how and when another person, called an agent or proxy, is allowed to act on your behalf in case you cannot make medical decisions. You can allow your health care agent to make all medical decisions, or just some.

If your mental state or your level of consciousness aren't sufficient for you to communicate, as determined by your medical care providers, your agent will be able to step in and make decisions on your behalf.

Some people choose just one agent, while others feel more comfortable selecting an alternate as well.

Why Speak With an Attorney?

With health care reform on everyone's mind - and for some people, a lack of confidence about what types of care will be readily provided - now is a good time to write down important thoughts on your own health care.

Health care directives and health care proxies call for certain formalities in order to be valid. The rules vary by state. If you have questions concerning the requirements, or any other aspect of these vital documents, please contact one of the experienced attorneys at Burns & Hansen, P.A.