What if you had a serious accident or illness and you were unable to tell your doctors what kind of medical treatment you wanted? What if the same were true for a close family member? Do you have a plan as to who will handle your financial matters or make decisions about your healthcare if you can’t?

Advance planning may be a grim topic to discuss, but the fact is that many families and healthcare providers are left to struggle with difficult decisions if a person has not communicated his/her wishes, and does not have a living will or someone designated as a durable power of attorney for healthcare. Advance planning can provide you with peace of mind and make things a little easier for your family if the time comes when you can’t speak for yourself or handle your financial affairs.

The purpose of advance directives is to give instructions on the kind of health care you do or don’t want, and to designate a surrogate to make medical decisions when you can’t. Elements of advance directives include the following:

  • Living will: A living will provides instructions for health care providers as to when to use, withhold, or withdraw end-of-life medical care, such as being on a ventilator or feeding tube.
  • Durable power of attorney: A durable power of attorney gives someone the power to handle financial and other matters. A durable power of attorney for health care, or health care proxy, refers to the legal designation of someone who will make medical decisions when the individual cannot do so. The person with durable power of attorney for health care can make treatment decisions beyond those listed in a living will. It’s important to note that the authority to make medical decisions on a person’s behalf is not included in a general power of attorney. A general power of attorney is a written authorization to act on someone’s behalf in certain legal and financial matters, but it ends when the person becomes incapacitated.

In addition to developing advance directives, communicating them to healthcare professionals is equally important. Advance directives can only work if the surrogate understands the individual’s preferences, and health care providers are aware that the documents exist.