Who do you trust to make health care decisions if you are unable to do so?  Does your immediate family know your desires about end-of-life issues? Have you already spoken with the person that you want to make these decisions when you aren’t able to make them?

Most people don’t spend much time thinking about death and dying until they must. It’s completely understandable. Unfortunately, some people who haven’t made their end-of-life plans known can unintentionally make life difficult for their loved ones when unanticipated health emergencies arise. All too often, family members are forced to make emotionally difficult decisions with little knowledge of what the patient desired.

Your health care wishes, as spelled out in a medical power of attorney and a living will, could be the most important estate planning documents that you sign. By giving your loved ones and health care providers clear direction, you can articulate the kinds of treatment you want or don’t want and can name the person you want to carry out your wishes during these tough times.

What’s the difference between a living will and a medical power of attorney?

  • A living will articulates your preferences about certain kinds of life-sustaining treatments. For example, you can specify whether you prefer or oppose medical interventions like cardiac resuscitation, insertion of feeding tubes or mechanical respiration.
  • A medical power of attorney (POA) identifies a person whom you trust who will act as your representative if you are unable to speak for yourself. If you prefer to have one person act as your health care representative and another person to serve as your financial representative, you can separate your medical and financial powers of attorney.

Medical POA’s involve at least two people: the principal (or patient unable to speak) and the agent (the person trusted to carry out the principal’s wishes).

Here are a few things to consider when selecting the agent to represent you:

  • Someone you trust. You could be literally putting your life in this person’s hands, so you’ll want someone you know who wants what’s best for you and is committed to carrying out your wishes. A spouse, best friend, adult son or daughter, etc.
  • Someone familiar with your living will and POA and committed to carrying out your instructions.
  • Someone who will fight for you and will not be intimidated by medical professionals or other family members or friends.
  • Someone who can set aside their own feelings about a medical procedure in order to carry out your decisions.
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