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Health Care Directive

Creating a health care directive is essential to ensuring that your medical needs are met according to your wishes, even if you aren’t able to communicate those wishes yourself. When an emergency occurs that prevents you from advocating for yourself, having a health care directive—also known as a living will or medical directive—in place can go a long way toward ensuring that your needs are met.

What Is a Health Care Directive?

A health care directive is a legal document that lays out your wishes for medical care and other vital services in the event that you are unable to request those services for yourself. Usually, a health care directive contains two vital parts: the living will and the medical power of attorney.

A living will lays out your specific medical wishes and answers questions about what steps you want to be taken for your medical care in the event that you cannot explain those things yourself. For example, it might spell out your wishes regarding:

  • Pain management
  • Organ donation
  • What steps you want to have taken to keep you alive

A medical power of attorney, on the other hand, designates who you want to have the authority to make medical decisions for you if for any reason you cannot make them for yourself.

How Does a Health Care Directive Work?

A health care directive clearly lays out your wishes regarding specific types of medical care or the steps that you would like to have taken in the event of a medical emergency. It allows you the opportunity to make those decisions in advance, whether you simply want to be prepared for any potential disaster or you have a looming health problem—like a cancer diagnosis or early-stage Alzheimer’s or dementia—that you know will later prevent you from making those decisions on your own.

If an emergency occurs, the doctors who care for you will follow the steps laid out in your health care directive, often provided by your medical power of attorney. If they have questions about your care, including questions that are not covered by your living will, they may ask the person designated as your medical power of attorney to make those decisions for you. Legally, that person’s decisions and mandates will override the decisions made by any other family member in the event of a medical emergency.

Who Needs a Health Care Directive?

A health care directive is a valuable tool for anyone to have. However, there are some people in particular who may benefit more from one:

  • Someone who wishes to assign medical power of attorney to an individual who is not their spouse, or who is otherwise not the person that medical care providers would commonly turn to in order to get answers to vital medical questions
  • An elderly individual
  • Someone whose overall health is declining
  • Someone who has received a medical diagnosis that they know may involve specific challenges or the need for specific types of treatment, which they may want to lay out in advance

Do I Need a Lawyer for a Health Care Directive?

There are templates available online that you can put together to establish your health care directive. However, having a lawyer can offer several key advantages. First, an estate planning lawyer will ensure that you follow all the steps needed to make your health care directive legal, which will increase the odds that your wishes will be met in the event of a medical emergency. Second, a lawyer will ask questions that you may not have considered when putting your health care directive together on your own, including questions about how you may choose your medical power of attorney, or what you might want to happen in the case of several common medical events. Finally, an estate planning attorney can keep a copy of your medical power of attorney at hand, which could prove crucial if something happens that prevents you from producing that paperwork on your own.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Are the 3 Types of Advance Directives?

Most people include three key types of advance directives in their health care planning:

  • Living will: Lays out the specific medical care treatments that an individual wants in given circumstances and provides an outline of the individual’s general wishes
  • Medical power of attorney: Declares the person whom the individual named in the power of attorney wishes to make vital medical care decisions on their behalf
  • Durable power of attorney: Allows the person named as the power of attorney to make financial decisions on behalf of someone who is medically incapacitated

What Happens if You Don’t Have an Advance Directive?

If you do not have an advance directive, you may have no control over what medical or financial decisions are made on your behalf if a doctor certifies in writing that you do not have the ability to make them for yourself. An advance directive helps set out your wishes and ensure that your medical care team knows about them. Without that document, your care team will turn to your next of kin—usually your spouse, parents, or children—to make those vital medical decisions, and the individual selected may not make the decisions that you would prefer.

Is a Health Care Directive the Same as a Living Will?

A health care directive may include a living will, which will lay out your specific desires with regards to the medical treatments you want or do not want in the event that you are unable to make medical decisions for yourself. However, a health care directive may also include other elements, such as a durable power of attorney that will allow a specific individual to make financial decisions and a medical power of attorney that will establish who you want to make medical care decisions on your behalf.