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Creating an estate plan is not only for someone who has a lot of assets. Nor is it for those who are over 30, 40, or 50—pick an age. The best time for advance care planning is when you are 18 years old, even if you do not have assets of your own yet. At 18, you are considered an adult, which means that you can make your own decisions. That also means that in most cases, others cannot make those decisions for you. Should something happen—such as an accident or an illness that leaves you incapacitated—you need someone to make medical and other decisions for you while you cannot make them yourself.
Part of your estate plan involves advance care planning. An advance care plan consists of one or more documents that name one or more people to make decisions or take actions on your behalf when you cannot do so for yourself.
You put your preferences into an advance directive. This document only goes into effect should you become incapacitated. The advance directive could also include instructions for end-of-life care. As life changes or new people come into your life, you might want to make changes to your advance directive. Since it is a living document, you can make any changes anytime you want, as long as you can legally sign the document.
Once you create the advance directive, give a copy to your doctor for your medical records. You should also provide a copy to any person you named in the advance directive. Finally, keep a copy in a place where your family members or a close friend can access it should you have an emergency.
Should you become incapacitated, the person you named in the advance directive brings a copy to the hospital. Although the doctors might have the copy you made, the person you named should make an extra copy. Should certain decisions need to be made, the document gives that person permission to make those decisions. It also states how you want medical decisions handled.
For example, you might have a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order under certain circumstances as part of your advance directive. If the doctors find you in that state, they cannot do anything without permission from someone. For example, if a car accident puts you into a coma and you cannot live without life support, you might wish to pull life support. Your advance directive can direct doctors to do this. It can also ask a loved one to make that determination.
Anyone who is able to make their own decisions needs an advance care plan. Accidents and/or illnesses can strike at any time during your life. Only you know how you want doctors to handle certain events. An advance directive tells doctors and your relatives what you want.
Advance care planning also helps prevent fighting between family members. For example, if you know you do not want to be on life support if there is no chance of you coming off of it, and your mother agrees with you but your spouse thinks you should stay on life support, your advance directive could prevent a fight between two of the most important people in your life. The advance directive makes that decision for them and names one of them to notify your doctor of your wishes.
You should always consult an attorney for life-changing decisions. Advance care planning is often more than creating an advance directive. A probate attorney can help you with the advance directive and other documents, including wills, trusts, powers of attorney for finances and healthcare, and more.
Advance care planning is making health decisions before you cannot make them yourself. Some of the decisions you should consider are whether you want cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), to be put onto a ventilator, artificial nutrition, and/or comfort care.
Before you sign an advance directive, you should discuss your decisions with your spouse or another family member. For example, do you want CPR, and if so, under what circumstances should doctors not perform CPR? Do you want doctors to use a ventilator in certain circumstances? When do you want doctors to withhold artificial nutrition? Do you prefer comfort care or life support if doctors believe you will not recover enough to come off life support?
While you can make these decisions yourself, it’s always best to discuss them with the person you are naming as your healthcare power of attorney.
Advance care planning also involves creating other documents, such as powers of attorney, organ donation information, living wills, and more.
Your advance directive is just one of the documents in your advance care plan that deal with emergency injuries and illnesses. You might have an advance directive, a living will, organ donor instructions, a power of attorney for certain healthcare decisions, a power of attorney for financial decisions and actions, and more.
If you do not have an advance directive, the person you name as power of attorney for your healthcare can make certain decisions for you—but only those decisions you list in the power of attorney. Other estate planning documents might also give loved ones instructions.
However, if you do not have an advance directive or an estate plan and have not done other advance care planning, someone could make a decision on your behalf that you might not have made yourself. For example, a spouse could leave you on life support for many years, whereas you might have instructed doctors to remove life support if there was no chance of you recovering.
Contact an estate planning or probate attorney today for a free consultation to discuss advance care planning and other estate documents.