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Spelling Out Your Medical Wishes Clearly: Living Will vs POA

Spelling Out Your Medical Wishes Clearly: Living Will vs POA

When it comes to planning for potential incapacity or end-of-life healthcare decisions, two key legal documents come into play – the power of attorney and the living will. Many of our clients have questions about the difference between the two.
That’s why our attorneys at Cary Estate Planning make it a priority to guide clients through establishing personalized advance care planning.
We take the time to understand your unique situation, wishes, and concerns and then advise on options like appointing a power of attorney for healthcare decisions versus establishing a living will to spell out specific treatment instructions.
In this article, we’ll clearly break down the key distinctions between the two.

What is a Power of Attorney?

A power of attorney (POA) enables you to designate a trusted person to handle your financial, legal, and healthcare matters if you become unable to make your own decisions. It empowers someone to make important choices on your behalf if you become incapacitated.
For instance, your “attorney-in-fact” – the person you select – could pay everyday bills, manage government benefits, make real estate transactions, or coordinate medical care based on your preferences.
In North Carolina, a durable power of attorney remains effective even if you become incompetent or mentally disabled. It is critical for anyone over age 18 to set up this versatile document.

What are Living Wills?

A living will vs a simple will, on the other hand, specifically outlines your personal preferences for end-of-life medical care – but only when you have a terminal condition or are permanently unconscious. This “advance healthcare directive” communicates to your loved ones and doctors when you would want treatments such as CPR, ventilators, feeding tubes, pain medication, and more.
For example, you could decline treatments that merely prolong the dying process without hope of recovery. A living will eases the future burden on family members struggling with emotionally draining choices. It also prevents unwanted, invasive interventions when the quality of life is already severely diminished.

Key Differences Between Living Wills and POAs

Although they sound similar, powers of attorney and living wills are distinct in several important ways:

  • Types of authority: While a POA grants extensive authority over a wide range of legal, financial, and healthcare matters, a living will has a narrow focus on end-of-life treatment options.
  • When they take effect: A POA can be used any time you’re unable to make competent decisions, but a living will only apply when you have a terminal condition.
  • Decision maker: A POA document names a specific person as your surrogate decision-maker if you become incapacitated. A living will does not appoint someone; it just describes specific care instructions.
  • Areas of control: POAs broadly cover financial transactions, property management, government program coordination, medical choices, and more. Living wills exclusively guide medical interventions near death.

While complicated, giving thoughtful consideration to implementing both an appropriately-scoped POA and detailed living will ensures all bases are covered – whether expected cases like accidents or surgery, deteriorating conditions like dementia, or life-altering diagnoses.
Our will lawyers at Cary Estate Planning guide clients toward identifying and legally designating trusted proxies or naming specific care instructions to match unique needs and life stages. We then help ensure these intentions get properly recorded and communicated to all parties involved in potential medical care down the road.

The biggest risk comes from doing nothing at all. Fail to legally document informed consent, share your values and care preferences, or authorize key decision makers, then emotionally-burdened loved ones get left with guessing about complex medical choices on your behalf.

Who Should Have Copies of These Documents?

Once signed and notarized, distribute your POA to people and institutions that may need to reference it if you become incapacitated:

  • Primary and successor attorneys-in-fact
  • Doctors/healthcare providers
  • Banks, investment companies
  • Accountants, government agencies
  • Close contacts who may provide care

For your living will, provide copies to:

  • Doctors/health networks
  • Designated healthcare power of attorney
  • Loved ones involved in your care
  • Estate planning attorney

Also, keep originals in a secure location that is easily accessed in an emergency.

What If You Become Incapacitated Without a Living Will or POA?

Unfortunately, we often encounter families struggling through guardianship proceedings because no POA was ever established.
The court must get involved to make decisions on the incapacitated person’s behalf. This public process can divide families and quickly drain resources.
Likewise, without clear guidance from a living will, unwanted treatments may sustain life well past the point loved ones believe is reasonable. Conflicts between surrogate decision-makers and healthcare providers often end up in ethics committee reviews or lengthy court battles.

Gain Peace of Mind With Proper Advance Care Planning

While complex, when thoughtfully addressed, powers of attorney and living wills offer immense peace of mind for you and your loved ones. These documents work hand-in-hand to align care preferences with financial resources, property, and broader legal matters.
Rather than leave your care and legacy at risk in the event of incapacity, make the difficult decisions in advance so you can find peace of mind knowing your healthcare, financial matters, and legacy are protected. At Cary Estate Planning, our attorneys have prepared thousands of POAs and healthcare directives that withstand legal scrutiny.
We guide you each step of the way with compassion so you can relax knowing that difficult decisions have been made in advance. Let us provide clarity and confidence during this challenging process.
Contact us today to discuss your family’s unique needs.

Author Bio

Paul Yokabitus

Paul Yokabitus is the CEO and Managing Partner of Cary Estate Planning, a Cary, NC, estate planning law firm. With years of experience in estate and elder law, he has zealously represented clients in various legal matters, including estate planning, guardianship, Medicaid planning, estate administration, and other cases.

Paul received his Juris Doctor from the Campbell University School of Law and is a North Carolina Bar Association member. He has received numerous accolades for his work, including being named among the “Best Attorney in Cary” in 2016 and 2017 by Cary News and Rising Star in 2020-2023 by Super Lawyers.

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