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Everyone has the right to choose his or her own health care interventions and treatments. Yet sometimes an individual is comatose or has dementia or some other debilitation and cannot make health care choices. In this case, a health care directive will express to medical personnel the wishes of the individual when he or she was still able to make health care choices.

A health care directive refers to not just one document, but several. If you don’t have a health care directive in place, consult with a lawyer that handles wills as soon as possible. Your loved ones may thank you, as you will be saving them from some very difficult choices at a later time.

Your Living Will

This is sometimes called a health care declaration. It is not the same as the will you would leave, directing disposition of property after you die. This truly is a document that is activated when you are still living, but no longer able to make your own health care decisions.

In your living will, you must state what kind of medical care you do and do not want to receive. The primary example of this would be indicating if and when you want doctors to end life-support measures such as ventilation or feeding tubes, even though you will die without them (i.e., “pulling the plug”).

The Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care

This important document might also be called your medical power of attorney. In this, your estate planning law firm helps you select a trusted person to name your medical agent (also called attorney-in-fact). He or she will make medical decisions for you if you become incapacitated to make decisions.

Who should you choose as your agent? To review quickly, this should be someone who:

  • Is assertive. Your health care agent may need to stand up to the medical establishment, and/or to family members who don’t agree with your directives. Medical malpractice lawyers will tell you there is always a chance that your agent will need to recognize when medical care has gone wrong.
  • Lives nearby. Your health care agent may be needed to be present for weeks or months to make sure your health care directives are carried out. This could be a particular burden if your agent lives in another city or state.
  • Can be your financial agent. Because medical care involves financial decisions, it’s best to give your health care agent a durable power of attorney for finances as well. If you are naming two separate people, make sure you select two people who can get along and make decisions together on your behalf.

Sometimes the combined living will and durable power of attorney are called the “advance health care directive.”

DNR Order

This stands for Do Not Resuscitate, and it is a specific order one might give when hospitalized to tell health care personnel you do not wish to have certain life-saving measures. Usually this is given by a person who is terminally ill. However, if you are already incapacitated, you cannot give a DNR order. To make your wishes known, you may create a “prehospital DNR” which can be presented to paramedics if they are called to your home or care facility.

If you do not have these important health care directives in place, schedule time with an an experienced estate attorney who will guide you through the process.