Two-Thirds Of All Americans Are Missing This Estate Planning Document

For most Americans, estate planning can be complex and daunting. It might seem overwhelming and expensive, and it isn’t easy to confront one’s mortality and make the necessary decisions for it. Nevertheless, it is essential that every American have one important estate planning document: A Health Care Directive.

A health care directive is a legal document which specifies the decisions for caregivers in the event of illness or dementia as well as giving directions for end of life decisions, including how the body should be handled after death. They are sometimes also called living wills, durable health care powers of attorney, or medical directives.

The Impact of Estate Planning

Health care directives are a relatively new compared to other estate planning documents such as wills or trusts. They first started in 1976 when California passed the first law that permitted health care directives, and by 1992, all 50 states had similar laws.

That the law was so quickly accepted across the country shows why these documents are so important in today’s world. A key concept is that of control. Estate planning allows us to have control over important issues when we are impaired and after our death. Despite how important a health care directive is, however, only one third of Americans have one, according to a 2017 study.

We often think of death as a single event, but in most people’s cases it is a process. As we work through a directive, it is important to visualize how we want each step of the process to go.

Choosing the Right Agent

A key decision in a health care directive is the choice of one’s agent. The agent acts on your behalf to make decisions that are consistent with your wishes and values and is your advocate on decisions such as whether you want to have treatment continued or just be kept comfortable in palliative care. These are intimate and tough life changing decisions.  Most married people choose their spouse for this role, and most people who are not married choose an adult child or another family member.

You should sit down with your agent and go through the directive. Hearing you explain your decisions and thoughts will give them guidance if and when the time comes for them to step in.

After One Passes

The agent’s role in the health care directive continues after our death to ensure that our post-mortem wishes are carried out. When the individual passes, the agent takes control of the body and must be sure that any organ donation wishes are carried out. This decision is usually indicated on one’s driver’s license but is also restated in the health care directive which can provide important details. In most states, there are four choices for donation: transplant, education, research and therapy, and options for further parameters as well. If one wishes to donate only certain body parts, this can be in the health care directive.

After donation wishes are carried out, the agent then helps to make sure funeral wishes are handled properly. Burial is an ancient ritual and time-honored tradition, but we now have so much choice in how we want our bodies to be handled after our deaths, and funeral planning is often a reflection of an individual’s values today. The instructions can be listed in the health care directive and can be as simple as burial or cremation, but this can also include more detailed funeral plans, such as who you want for your eulogy, songs to be played, and the selection of flowers.

Be Proactive

A health care directive gives you control over an important part of your legacy, giving you a clear voice in the decision-making process from medical decisions to funeral procedures. It is important to complete this document sooner rather than later. Fortunately, getting one is relatively straightforward, as most states offer a statutory form that can be found on the state Attorney General’s website.

Once this is put in place, despite the apprehension you might feel regarding estate planning, you will likely rest easier with this part of your life in order.

For help with your estate plan and health care directive, contact us at Wilson and Wilson Estate Planning and Elder Law, LLC, 708-482-7090 or