There are two types of documents that can make end-of-life decisions easier for you and your loved ones: the power of attorney and the living will. When you create these documents, you will have the peace of mind that your end-of-life care will be carried out as closely as possible to what you wish. You can also be confident that your loved ones won't be stuck making tough decisions that could divide them just when they need each other most.
The Living Will
A living will doesn't actually do anything that most people commonly associate with wills, like distribute property. Instead, a living will lets those around you know what kind of care you do, or do not, want to have in the event that you are unable to communicate your wishes because of a debilitating injury or illness.
Your living will can be very specific or very general. You can spell out exactly what kind of procedures you want or don't want, or you can make a general pronouncement and leave it up to those around you to determine how to proceed.
If you elect to go with the general approach, it is particularly important to craft a power of attorney. Even if you attempt in your living will to spell out what you want in every conceivable circumstance, however, you should still have a power of attorney in place. No one can predict every eventuality, so it is important to have someone you trust in place to make the hard choices you didn't foresee.
Power of Attorney for Healthcare
With what is known as a durable power of attorney for health care, you can designate an agent that will make decisions that weren't covered by your living will. It is important to note that your health care agent can't overrule any of the provisions of your living will. Your agent can only supplement your wishes if something comes up that you didn't anticipate in your living will.
If you have already designated a power of attorney for financial decisions, keep in mind that conflict can arise between your financial and health agents. It's best to choose individuals that you know can work together and who have your best interests at heart.
Creating a Living Will or Power of Attorney for Healthcare
In order to create either a living will or a power of attorney for healthcare, most states only require that you are an adult (typically 18) and are competent when you create the document.
When a Living Will or Power of Attorney for Healthcare Begins
Both of these documents take effect when your doctor declares that you lack the "capacity" to make your own health care decisions. The standard is different in every state, but typically you no longer have the capacity to make health care decisions if:
Another option allowed in some states is to name a healthcare agent, who can act for you at any time if you grant them the power. This is a popular option with spouses and allows for immediate decisions to be made without having to have a doctor declare you incapacitated. Your healthcare agent can't override the healthcare treatment wishes you set forth in your living will, and must always abide by your best interests.
When a Living Will or Power of Attorney for Healthcare Ends
Your living will and the power of attorney for healthcare are generally extinguished upon your death. This also means that your healthcare agent, if you designate one, can only make healthcare decisions for you while you are alive and incapacitated. Some states allow your healthcare directives or agents to remain effective after your death only for limited purposes, such as the disposal of your remains.
Otherwise, your living will generally only ends if it is terminated by you or a court. The power of attorney for healthcare can similarly be revoked, but may also be affected by a divorce. Some states automatically revoke a divorced spouse as a healthcare agent, and any alternate you name would become your new healthcare agent. To avoid confusion, designate a new healthcare agent upon a divorce and always name alternate agents when drafting the original document.
Learn More About Your Estate Planning Options From an Attorney
Planning your financial affairs is complicated. Educating yourself on the basic principles is helpful, but a lawyer can answer specific questions and propose creative solutions to help you tailor your documents to your individual needs. Contact a local estate planning attorney and learn how they can help you craft the documents that will protect you later in life.