Most people have heard about living wills but may not know exactly how they work. A living will is called an advanced health care directive (AHCD) in California, and they are designed to allow another person to make health care decisions for you if you are incapacitated in some way.
The importance of this cannot be overstated, and there are well publicized cases where patients linger for years with no AHCD, and family or medical personnel have no ability to make extreme decisions. Because this may be an uncomfortable topic, some families will put it off, but it is really fairly simple for your attorney to draft this document.
There are two separate parts to the AHCD, the durable power of attorney and the ‘living will’ or directions for care.
Durable Power of Attorney
The power of attorney is what gives a trusted family member or friend the legal authority to make decisions on your behalf. For that reason, selecting your ‘agent’ for this purpose is especially important as they will be the one to carry out your care directives.
There are no standards for selecting an agent, except that they cannot be a non-relative health care provider. It is also best if they live nearby in the event of an emergency.
The second part of the AHCD is where your specific directions are contained, that relate to the type of care that you do or not want administered. For example, if you don’t want life preserving measures in the event you are comatose, the directive is the only thing that would allow medical professionals to remove life support or nutrition.
You can also specify if you want to have long term palliative care at home or in a hospice, as well as the type of pain relief you prefer. Some patients who are critically ill will also want to discuss a do not resuscitate (DNR), which would prevent any type of emergency resuscitation, with their doctor.
Even if you don’t have an estate plan, an AHCD can be prepared for you and your spouse by an estate planning attorney. Although it is unrelated to the financial aspects of an estate plan, it can also help lead to broader discussion of end of life planning.