The concept of a living will is to give you peace of mind about any health problems or issues that may arise in the future. Also, it addresses the choices that need to be made and your family members inability to make those decisions for you, regarding your health. Leaving the decisions up to your family members can be difficult for them. A living will allows you to make those choices ahead of time alleviating the stress for family members. It is important for anyone, over the age of 18, to have a living will. In the event of a terminal illness or having become critically injured, without a living will, no one has the right to make medical decisions that impact your life or determine whether you should live or die.
These legal documents have different names but one goal; designating your wishes for healthcare when you are unable to do so. The legal document that is imperative to put your wishes into writing is called a living will. Unlike a traditional will, a living will is primarily directed to medical personnel regarding the types of medical procedures you wish or do not wish to receive when you are terminally ill or incapacitated. The living will becomes operative when it is provided to your physician or healthcare provider and you are incapable of making healthcare decisions for yourself. A durable power of attorney or also known as a health care proxy is a signed, dated, and witnessed legal document that authorizes an individual to act as a spokesperson or agent of an individual to handle his/her affairs after he/she becomes incompetent.
An advance directive combines a living will and durable power of attorney into one document or two separate documents. As with any document, there is potential for problems. The biggest problem is the misinterpretation of the patient’s wishes by medical personnel. Not specifically defining the terms “incurable illness,” or “seriously incapacitated,” can leave the physician to interpret their own meaning, unless specified. There are certain code status’ that can also be too vague for interpretation. For instance, a chemical code in some hospitals means that you wish to be treated with medications only, while another hospital this code means no other procedures, (CPR or invasive procedures) are to be used. By using very specific terms in your living will can make your wishes known and can avoid potential problems.
First and foremost, when executing any or all of these legal documents you must first check your state’s statutes to determine its requirements for these legal documents. Each state’s statutes differ, but provide the legal authority for you to make particular decisions in advance. Once you have done this, it’s time to start making important decisions such as; who will you choose to be your durable power of attorney, or health care proxy? – How do I choose someone to make these choices in my best interest? To make this decision, you may want to ask yourself a few questions to help you determine who could speak for you in a medical crisis:
1. Would this person be able to separate their own feelings from yours?
2. This person is able to handle conflict within your family, and medical personnel.
3. Knows you very well and understands what’s important to you.
4. You trust this person in general and with your life.
5. Meets the legal criteria in your state. (Very important.)
After requesting permission of the person whom you have chosen for your durable power of attorney and discussing your concerns, instructions, and wishes with them, refer to your attorney to discuss your state’s policies on living wills and health care proxys. Make your choices clear and foolproof.
Next you will want to read and understand, possibly with your attorney present, the living will, a health care proxy, and the durable power of attorney forms, which is available online or from your attorney. Make sure you fully understand the contents of these forms as well as the choices that are to be made along with them. Consulting your physician about the type of care you wish to have or wish not to have, life prolonging treatments, or pain medications. You may also include organ donation in your will. Once the papers are complete and state statutes are followed, and the legal forms are signed, you will want to give copies to your doctor, healthcare proxy, and your family members. You will also want to keep a copy for yourself and this should be kept in an easily accessible location, or in a wallet type form.
Laws governing living wills or advance directives vary state to state. These laws contain specific directions and requirements that must be met in order to be in compliance and assures the validity of the living will. For instance, The State of Rhode Island’s Rights of the Terminally Ill Act states that you must have two witnesses sign and date the legal form and may not be related to you by blood or marriage, while Alaska requires no witnesses or notarization.