Putting Important Health Care Decision Planning in Place

Just as we create estate plans for our eventual demise, we also need to plan ahead for the possibility that we will become sick and unable to make our own medical decisions. Medical science has created many miracles, among them the technology to keep patients alive longer, sometimes indefinitely. As a result of many well-publicized “right-to-die” cases, Illinois has made it possible for individuals to give detailed instructions regarding the kind of care they would like to receive should they become terminally ill or are in a permanent unconscious state.

If an individual becomes incapacitated, it is important that someone have the legal authority to communicate that person’s wishes concerning medical treatment. Similar to a power of attorney for property, a power of attorney for health care allows an individual to appoint someone to act as his agent, but for medical, as opposed to financial, decisions. The health care power of attorney is a document executed by a competent person (the principal) giving another person (the agent) the authority to make health care decisions for the principal if he is unable to communicate such decisions. By executing a health care power of attorney, principals ensure that the instructions they have given their agent will be carried out. A health care proxy is especially important to have if an individual and family members may disagree about treatment.

Accompanying a power of attorney for health care should be a medical directive. Such directives provide the agent with instructions regarding what type of care the principal would like. A medical directive can be included in the health care power of attorney. It may contain directions to refuse or remove life support in the event the principal is in a coma or a vegetative state, or it may provide instructions to use all efforts to keep the principal alive, no matter what the circumstances.

Living wills are documents that give instructions regarding treatment if the individual becomes terminally ill or is in a persistent vegetative state and is unable to communicate his or her own instructions. The living will states under what conditions life-sustaining treatment should be terminated. If an individual would like to avoid life-sustaining treatment when it would be hopeless, he needs to execute a living will. Like a health care power of attorney, a living will takes effect only upon a person’s incapacity. Also, a living will is not set in stone; an individual can always revoke it at a later date if he wishes.

A living will, however, is not a substitute for a power of attorney for health care. A living will simply dictates the withdrawal of life support in instances of terminal illness, coma or a vegetative state.

Do not confuse a living will with a “do not resuscitate” order (DNR). A DNR says that if you are having a medical emergency such as a heart attack or stroke, medical professionals may not try to revive you. This is very different from a living will, which only goes into effect if you are in a vegetative state. Everyone can benefit from a living will while DNRs are only for very elderly or frail patients for whom it would not make sense to administer CPR.For more information consult your estate planning attorney.

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