Estate planning involves more than simply identifying what will happen to your assets when you die; it also encompasses planning for periods of lifetime incapacity. A living will and a health care power of attorney are both documents designed to give you peace of mind, knowing your health care wishes will be honored and your loved ones will not need to deal with the stress of trying to determine what your wishes are, if you reach a point where you cannot speak for yourself to make your own wishes known.
Understanding the Differences Between Living Wills and Health Care Powers of Attorney
While both documents relate to your medical care, there are some important differences between them.
Living wills only apply when you are terminally ill, permanently unconscious, or in a similar end-stage condition as defined by state law. This document tells your loved ones how you feel about life-sustaining medical procedures and care in such situations.
A health care power of attorney is used to appoint an agent whom you trust to speak for you and make medical decisions on your behalf, if you are unable to speak for yourself. This person may also be referred to as a surrogate, an attorney-in-fact, or a proxy. Your health care agent has authority when you are unconscious or are otherwise unable to communicate. They cannot overrule your decisions in your living will, but they can supplement your wishes and make decisions if circumstances you didn’t anticipate arise.
Which Document is Best?
The decision about whether to have a living will or a health care power of attorney prepared is not an either/or proposition. Your living will can be used alongside a health care power of attorney, or they can be combined into a single document (often referred to as a health care directive).
In some situations, it can be helpful to have a separate standalone living will to outline your wishes, but to also have a health care power of attorney in place appointing a trusted family member or friend who can make the hard decisions you didn’t foresee or cover in your living will.
Choosing a Health Care Agent
When you create a health care power of attorney, you will need to name an agent who can be your voice for your medical decisions when you cannot speak for yourself. It’s important to put some thought into the person you ultimately name, as this will be the person making decisions about your care.
Is the person you named likely to be available to step in if you need a surrogate? Naming an elderly parent or someone who lives on the other side of the world could mean that your agent isn’t available when you need them. You should choose to name one or more levels of succession for your health care agent, so that if the first-named person isn’t able to serve, you have a backup who could step in.
It’s also important to evaluate how well the person you named understands your personal and religious values, and how confident you are that he or she would have your best interests at heart when serving.
If you’ve named someone different as your agent in a financial power of attorney document, consider whether the two agents would be able to work together in managing your affairs.
Make Sure Your Wishes are Legally Documented
Choosing to have a living will, a health care power of attorney, or both documents prepared can help ease your mind, and can give your loved ones much-needed comfort if a situation arises when they need to rely on those documents. Document your wishes legally, and revisit them periodically to ensure the documents still reflect your goals and thoughts about your health care.