Usually, when you seek medical care your doctor will explain your treatment options to you and you will choose the option you want to try. However, there may come a time when you are unable to understand your treatment options or unable to express your wishes. This could occur gradually as you age or become ill. It could also happen suddenly as a result of an accident.
Because there is no way to know what your future might hold, it is prudent to act early to make your wishes for or against certain treatments known. Health care directives are legal documents that allow you to do just that.
What health care directives might be valuable to me?
Two of the most common health care directives are durable powers of attorney for health care and living wills. A durable power of attorney for health care is a document that allows you to choose someone, called an agent or attorney-in-fact, to make health care decisions on your behalf if you become unable to make your own decisions. A living will is a document that allows you to record your wishes for or against life-sustaining treatments in specific circumstances.
You can create both a living will and a durable power of attorney for health care. However, if you only plan to create one advance directive, a durable power of attorney for health care may offer you more benefits, according to the State Bar of South Dakota. This is because a living will only addresses your wishes for life sustaining treatment and only goes into effect after two doctors diagnose you terminally ill or permanently unconscious. By comparison, a power of attorney for health care can include the same directives as a living will, while also granting your agent power to make all types of health care decisions for you.
What happens if I do not have a health care directive?
If you become incapacitated and you do not have a health care directive, a family member must make important health care decisions for you. If you are married, your spouse will need to make these decisions. If you are not married, an adult child may be required to make decisions for you.
There is a set order of relatives who may be required to make decisions for you. However, if you are incapacitated and you do not have a health care directive, someone you do not trust could end up making important medical decisions for you. Even if someone you trust is tasked with making your health care decisions, these important decisions can cause fights between family members who may disagree on what you might have wanted.
Creating a health care directive can help make sure you receive only the medical care you want to receive, even if you cannot express your wishes at the time the care is necessary. A health care directive can also help prevent possible family squabbles over your care by making your wishes more clear to your loved ones.
There is no way to tell if your health care directives will ever be needed. However, it is usually better to be prepared because once you need health care directives, it is already too late to create them.