An Introduction to End-of-Life and Medical Decision-Making

Do you need a health care power of attorney or living will? More often than not, people don't know the answer to this question and therefore, by default, don't go to the trouble of having these documents prepared. The short answer is that health care powers of attorney and living wills are a good idea for just about everyone. They certainly are not absolute necessities, however they provide peace of mind and protection at little or no cost to you. In light of the substantial benefits, low cost, and few, if any, downsides of obtaining one, you should strongly consider having a health care power of attorney and living will.

Health Care Powers of Attorney

In brief, a health care power of attorney is a document that allows you to designate another person to make decisions about the medical treatment you receive in the event that you are unable to express your own wishes or make decisions on your own. A person that does not have a health care power of attorney in place may receive medical treatment that they otherwise would not have wanted, may be kept alive against their wishes, or may incur expensive medical bills where there is little chance for recovery that they would have rather not passed on to their families.

Living Wills

Some individuals might say, "I don't need a health care power of attorney because I have a living will." In reality, a living will and health care power of attorney perform two different functions. Having one is good, but having both is certainly best.

A living will allows you to specifically communicate your wishes for your end-of-life care in writing. That allows a doctor to know what your wishes are without relying on someone else to tell her. The problem with a living will is that it typically applies only to end-of-life decisions and not to the myriad other circumstances that may arise. A health care power of attorney designates someone who knows your wishes and shares your values to make those unforeseeable decisions.

Where To Start

More and more often, states provide forms for health care powers of attorney and living wills within the text of their statutes. If your state does not, there are lots of forms online that will get you started. Typically these can be completed without the assistance of an attorney. However, once individuals begin drafting these documents they often find that they are unsure of how certain provisions will affect their end-of-life and medical decisions. If you have particular concerns about who and how decisions will be made for you, consult with an estate planning or probate attorney who can advise you of ways to maximize the probability that your wishes will be followed.