Estate planning is not just about what happens to your assets after you die — it is also about having a plan for making critical medical decisions in the event you are unable to make them yourself. And, as with other aspects of your estate plan, the time to act is now, while you are healthy. If an illness or injury renders you unconscious or otherwise incapacitated, it will be too late. Making tough decisions about your health care can also be much easier while heads are clear and emotions are not running high.
Planning in advance can ensure that your family has the authority to advocate on your behalf if you need assistance making your medical decisions, and it also ensures that they know your wishes. Without appropriate planning, there is no guarantee that your medical decisions will be made the way you would want, or by the person you would choose.
Two Documents, Two Purposes
To ensure that your wishes are carried out, and that your family is spared the burden of guessing — or arguing over — what you would decide, put those wishes in writing. Generally, that means executing two documents: 1) a health care declaration and 2) a health care power of attorney.
Unfortunately, these documents are known by many different names, which can lead to confusion. Health care declarations are sometimes called “living wills” or “advance directives.” Health care powers of attorneys may also be known as “durable medical powers of attorney,” “durable powers of attorney for health care” or “health care proxies.”
Regardless of terminology, these documents basically serve two important purposes: 1) to guide health care providers in the event you become unable to communicate or are unconscious, and 2) to appoint someone you trust to make medical decisions on your behalf.
Health Care Declaration
A health care declaration expresses your preferences for the use of life-sustaining medical procedures, such as artificial feeding and breathing, surgery, invasive diagnostic tests, and pain medication and specifies the situations in which these procedures should be used or withheld.
Health Care Power of Attorney
A health care power of attorney authorizes a surrogate — your spouse, child or another trusted representative — to make medical decisions or consent to medical treatment on your behalf if you are unable to do so. It is broader than a health care declaration, which generally is limited to end-of-life situations, although there may be some overlap.
A health care power of attorney might authorize your surrogate to make medical decisions that don’t conflict with your living will, including consenting to medical treatment, placing you in a nursing home or other facility, or even implementing or discontinuing life-prolonging measures.
It’s a good idea to have both a health care declaration and a health care power of attorney. Contact us if you have questions about how you can plan now, while you are healthy, to ensure that your medical care will be in accordance with your wishes, even if you’re unable to advocate for yourself.