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Many of us have planned for so many things in our life: college, home ownership, our retirement. But unfortunately, many of us fail to plan for one of the most important decisions we can make – our healthcare wishes.  Too often, those wishes are unknown by others who are often left with the task of making decisions for us. Physicians or our loved ones are asked to act on our behalf with no guidance on what we would want and usually under the stress of being forced to make a hard decision.

In fact, only about 25% of Americans document their future healthcare wishes in writing. Doesn’t it make sense that the right time to make your wishes known is while you are still in good health? As hard as making healthcare decisions is even in the best of circumstances, letting others make those decisions for you is even harder. Everyone has the right to make their wishes known, and it’s so easy. By letting our loved ones and healthcare providers know what we want, you’ll make sure the right decisions are made – your decisions. It’s as simple as writing it down. It’s really that easy, just fill out an Advance directive. That’s how you gain the ability to document the types of healthcare you do and don’t want, and to name an “agent” to speak for you if you can’t speak for yourself. When we put off documenting our wishes through an advance directive, too often the result is conflict, stress and confusion for your loved ones at a time when you are most vulnerable and can’t speak for yourself.

So, you want to plan ahead.

What are advance directives?

Think of Advance Directives as life on your terms. They are a way of making your voice heard when you can no longer speak. With Advance Directives you can express how much care you do and do not want at the end of life. They also allow you to name someone to make decisions about your medical treatment if you are unable to make these decisions or choices yourself. Advance directives generally fall into three categories: health care proxy, durable power of attorney, and living will.

Legal forms for advanced directives are available at your doctor’s office, hospital, health department, and your state’s department on aging. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have laws regarding advance directives. Documents must comply with the laws in your state. A list of the individual state legal requirements for advanced directives is available here. Once you make your decisions, it’s important that you sign and notarize these documents and give copies to your family, caregivers, and health care providers.

You can change or cancel advanced directives at any time provided you are considered competent and able to clearly indicate your desires (‘of sound mind’), and state laws are followed. These changes or cancellations should also be signed and notarized, and copies given to your family and health care providers to ensure they’re aware of the changes.

Preparing for the end of life is often uncomfortable for most people. However, planning ahead can reduce stress and tension for yourself and your loved ones. By completing advance directives, you can predetermine end-of-life decisions in a legally sound way.

What is health care proxy?

Health Care Proxy (also known as designation of a health care surrogate) is a legal document allowing you to select any person you choose to make medical decisions for you if you should become temporarily or permanently unable to make those decisions for yourself. Your health care proxy/surrogate has, in essence, the same rights to request or refuse treatment that you would have if you were capable of making and communicating those decisions.

This is different than Durable Power of Attorney. Durable Power of Attorney allows an individual to make bank transactions, sign Social Security checks, apply for disability, or simply write checks to pay bills if you become incapacitated due to a medical condition.

One advantage of having a health care proxy is that they can make medical decisions based on the most up-to-date treatment information.

What is durable power of attorney?

As part of your Advance Directives you can draft legal documents providing power of attorney to others. Durable Power of Attorney allows an individual to handle financial or business activities such as bank transactions, signing Social Security checks, applying for disability, or writing checks to pay bills if you become incapacitated due to a medical condition.

What is a living will?

A living will is a written document that spells out what types of medical treatment you desire in the future should you become incapable of communicating your wishes.

The term Living Will can be confusing because it really isn’t a Will at all. It doesn’t do things a Will does, like transfer property or name guardians for your minor children.

Living wills can be very specific or very general. Most living wills include a statement that in effect says: ‘If I suffer an incurable, irreversible illness, disease, or condition and my attending physician determines that my condition is terminal, I direct that life-sustaining measures that would serve only to prolong my dying be withheld or discontinued.’

Living wills can include more specific information in regard to your desire for such services such as analgesia (pain relief), antibiotics, hydration, feeding, and the use of ventilators or cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Each state has its own laws about Living Wills including how they are to be prepared, when they go into effect, even how your instructions will be applied. Some states require Living Wills to be witnessed, some states have a standard form that is recommended, and some require it to be signed before a notary.

Without a Living Will someone else will make medical treatment decisions for you if you should become incapacitated.

We urge you to have the conversation. Don’t wait for “the right time” to talk about advance directives with your family. You can start the conversation any given day, why not today?

Please read more here for more helpful information including advance directive forms, planning resources, and tools that will help you have the conversation. You can also call 1-800-838-9800 to reach an expert to help guide you through the process of Advanced Healthcare Planning. We are ready to help you, a loved one or your healthcare provider.