Making a will and/or creating a living trust are not sufficient because their main purpose is to determine what happens to your estate once you've died. To cover the eventuality that you may not be able to make your own health care decisions, you need a few more simple documents.
Experts recommend that you prepare two documents—a healthcare directive and a durable power of attorney for health care. In some states, these documents are combined in a single form that may be found on the state website by searching for "health care proxy," "advance directive," "living will" or "health care directive."
The healthcare directive defines the type of medical care you want, or don't want, if you are unable to speak or decide for yourself. Healthcare directives may be called living wills, advance directive, medical directive, directive to physicians, declaration regarding health care, designation of health care surrogate, or patient advocate directive depending on the state you live in.
Your healthcare directive can only become effective when the following occurs:
Your healthcare directive can describe whether you want specific procedures or care such as:
It is important that you include your wishes on pain medication because most states exclude pain-relieving procedures from the definitions of life-prolonging treatments that may be withheld.
It is also important you include your wishes on whether you want food and water withheld because some states exclude nutrition and hydration from the definitions of life-prolonging treatments that may be withheld.
Your healthcare directive is a good place to indicate if you wish to donate your organs, tissue, body parts or whole body. You can specify the organs, tissues, or body parts you wish to donate and also the purposes for which they can be used. It is smart to make the arrangements in advance, particularly for the whole body, and make sure that your healthcare agent and family members know about the arrangements.
You should have a healthcare directive even if you don't name a healthcare agent. Medical personnel are required to follow your written wishes for healthcare or to find someone who will care for you as you directed, even if you don't have an agent.
The durable power of attorney for health care appoints someone to be your healthcare agent. Your healthcare agent will make medical decisions for you if you can't make or communicate them yourself. The healthcare agent may also be called an attorney-in-fact, healthcare proxy, patient advocate, or healthcare surrogate.
Most durable powers of attorney for health care give your healthcare agent the authority to make all healthcare decisions for you. You can place limitations on the agent's authority but experts recommend that you don't. Remember that a healthcare agent only steps in when you are no longer able to make the decisions.
You can choose your spouse, partner, relative, or close friend. You should be comfortable discussing your wishes with them. The person you choose must respect your documented wishes even if they don't agree with them. They must also be willing to assert your documented wishes with the medical establishment and family members. Don't name an agent without discussing your wishes with them and making sure that they are willing to be your healthcare agent.
In many states, the law prevents you from naming your doctor, or an employee of a hospital or nursing home, as your healthcare agent. While your agent doesn't have to live nearby, you should consider where they live. In many instances, your agent may need to spend weeks or months making sure your wishes are carried out.
A Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order can be a supplement to your healthcare directives. A DNR indicates that you don't wish to receive CPR if your heart stops or you stop breathing. These are usually used by persons who are critically ill and don't want life-prolonging treatment. This document can be placed in your medical record if you are in a hospital or nursing home. You may also request that your doctor place it in your records maintained by the doctor.