By: The American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys

There is a common misconception that as long as you’re healthy, there’s not much need to think about who would make medical decisions on your behalf, should you be unable to make them. When you are healthy, you discuss your health care concerns with your doctor and are able to express your own wishes.

But who would voice your decisions in the event of an illness or accident? Imagine you were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or terminal cancer, or you were seriously injured in a car accident. When faced with an incapacitating situation, your legal rights and well-being are vulnerable without your voice. Consequently, making your medical wishes known before there is a need for them is essential in maintaining your autonomy.

When your family and doctors are left without direction about your wishes, they are left to guess at the type of care or life-sustaining treatment you’d want, and they might not make very accurate choices. For example, how do you feel about being put on life support when your doctors say there’s no hope you’ll recover? If you want to be removed from life support but you’ve left no instructions expressing this wish, what will happen when your doctors recommend that your family “pull the plug?” Without a clear expression from you, that life support cannot legally be removed.

There are a few things you can do to make sure your medical wishes are carried out even if you are unable to advocate for yourself.

  • First, make sure you have a Living Will. This is a legal document that expresses your wishes regarding end-of-life decisions. For instance, you can express your wishes concerning life support, CPR, or treatments that could prolong your life but not cure you if you are terminally ill.
  • Second, make sure you have a Health Care Power of Attorney. This lets you appoint someone you trust, called your agent, to make certain medical decisions for you if you are unable to make those decisions yourself.
  • Third, make sure you talk to your agent and your other family members to let them know how you feel about important medical decisions and particularly about end-of-life medical care.

In some states, a Living Will and Health Care Power of Attorney are combined into one document called an Advance Health Care Directive.

Don’t wait until there’s an emergency to think about important health care choices. Today is the perfect time to start a conversation with your family and to meet with an experienced estate planning attorney.

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