Living Wills and Durable Healthcare Power of Attorney
(together: Advance Healthcare Directive)
Regardless of the name your state gives to these documents, their purpose is to allow you to express your preferences concerning medical treatment in an extreme medical situation when you cannot communicate, including at the end of your life. By expressing such preferences in a written legal document, you are ensuring that your preferences are made known.
A living will is your written expression of how you want to be treated in certain medical circumstances. Depending on state law, this document may permit you to express whether you wish to be given life-sustaining treatments in the event you are terminally ill or injured, to decide in advance whether you wish to be provided food and water via intravenous devices (“tube feeding”), and to give other medical directions that impact your care, including the end of life. “Life-sustaining treatment” means the use of available medical machinery and techniques, such as heart-lung machines, ventilators, and other medical equipment and techniques that may sustain and possibly extend your life, but which may not by themselves cure your condition.
A living will applies in situations in which the decision to use such treatments may prolong your life for a limited period of time and not obtaining such treatment would result in your death. Having a living will does not mean that medical professionals would deny you pain medications and other treatments that would relieve pain or otherwise make you more comfortable. Living wills do not determine your medical treatment in situations that do not affect your continued life, such as routine medical treatment and non life-threatening medical conditions.
A “health care proxy,” sometimes called a “health care surrogate” or “durable medical power of attorney,” is a durable power of attorney specifically designed to cover medical treatment. You appoint a person and grant to him or her the authority to make medical decisions for you in the event you are unable to express your preferences about medical treatment. Most commonly, this situation occurs either because you are unconscious or because your mental state is such that you do not have the legal capacity to make your own decisions. As with living wills, depending on your state of residence, the health care proxy may be a standard or statutory form or it may be drafted specifically for you by your lawyer. Normally, one person (not multiple persons to act at one time) is appointed as your health care proxy. It is quite common, however, for you to appoint one or more alternate persons (successors) in the event your first choice proxy is unavailable. You should confirm prior to appointing someone as your proxy that he or she will in fact be willing and able to carry out your wishes. If your preferred proxy has, for example, a religious view that prevents him or her from carrying out your wishes, you should name someone else. As in the case of a living will, medical professionals will make the initial determination as to whether you have the capacity to make your own medical treatment decisions.
While all states recognize these types of documents, the law varies as to whether a state will recognize a document prepared in another state. It is not necessary to prepare additional documents in case you might vacation in another state. If you spend a considerable amount of time living in more than one state, however, you should consider having such documents prepared in each of the states in which you spend significant periods of time.