There are two types of documents that can make end-of-life medical decisions easier for you and your loved ones: the health care power of attorney (POA) and the living will. These legal documents are often combined into a two-part health care directive and can also be referred to as “advance directives” or “advance health care directives.” The end-of-life care planning that you can accomplish through a health care directive is a great way to give yourself peace of mind.
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The Living Will
A living will lets those around you know what kind of medical care you do or do not want to receive in the event that you are unable to communicate your wishes because of a debilitating injury or illness. Common healthcare treatment and other instructions addressed in a living will can include:
- Life support: Guidance on whether you would like to continue or withhold life-sustaining treatments such as dialysis if you have a terminal condition that leaves you in a persistent vegetative state.
- Hydration and nutrition: If you are unable to eat or drink on your own, whether you would like to continue receiving artificial nutrition and hydration through tube feeding or intravenous (IV) drip.
- Do Not Resuscitate (DNR): Details about your wishes for resuscitation.
- Anatomical gifts: Whether or not you want to make tissue and organ donations and specific organs and tissue you would like to donate.
- Body disposition: Instructions regarding burial, cremation, or some other method to dispose of your remains.
- Religious preferences: If your religion permits or prohibits certain medical treatments, you can provide information about what you would not want done to ensure your closely held beliefs are not violated.
- Mental Health: Most states allow you to include instructions regarding mental health treatments.
Power of Attorney for Healthcare
A power of attorney for health care is a legal document that allows you to designate someone to act as your health care agent. A power of attorney for health care is also sometimes called a “medical power of attorney,” “health care proxy,” “durable power of attorney for health care,” or some other similar term.
If you also have a living will or have provided medical instructions for your health care agent, it’s important to note that your health care agent can’t overrule your wishes. Your agent acts in your best interest as your representative to ensure that you receive the medical treatment you want and to make other decisions about your health care if you are unable to do so yourself. Some of the common things your agent can do on your behalf are:
- Communicate your wishes to health care providers and attending physicians
- Access your medical records
- Admit and discharge you from health care facilities, including nursing homes
Keep in mind that a power of attorney for health care is not the same thing as a financial power of attorney. The person you name as your agent in a financial power of attorney does not have authority to make decisions regarding your medical care. However, your financial agent does have the power to pay your medical bills and handle your other financial affairs so it’s important this person can work together with your healthcare agent.
When Your Living Will and Power of Attorney for Health Care Begin and End
These documents usually take effect when your doctor declares that you are incapacitated. Typically, this means you can no longer communicate or make your own health care decisions, often because of a terminal illness, permanent unconsciousness, or some other end-stage condition.
Your living will and the power of attorney for healthcare are generally extinguished upon your death but can remain effective after your death for limited purposes, such as the disposition of your remains and organ donation.
Creating Your Living Will or Power of Attorney
In almost all cases, you can create your own health care directive comprised of a living will and health care power of attorney if you are an adult and of sound mind. Planning your health care wishes isn’t always the most uplifting task, but it’s important to let your family members, friends, and other loved ones know what medical decisions you want. You can use FindLaw’s do-it-yourself estate planning legal forms to prepare health care directive, living will, and health care power of attorney forms. By filling out a simple questionnaire, you can create state-specific estate planning forms that include instructions on how to sign and finalize your legal documents according to the laws in your state.