Estate Planning: Living Wills and Health-Care Proxies

Estate Planning: Living Wills and Health-Care Proxies

Making your medical wishes known through living wills and health-care proxies now can save a lot of heartache later.


A living will (also known as an advance medical directive) provides your loved ones instructions to help them make the hard decisions they face when you can't tell your doctor what you want yourself. It provides your desire for the kind of life-sustaining medical intervention you want, or don't want, if you become terminally ill or are unable to communicate.

Most states have living will statutes that define when a living will become effective (for example, when a person has less than six months to live). State law may also restrict the medical interventions to which such directives apply. Do you want to have life support? Will you want food or water withheld? Do you want a do not resuscitate order? These can be very difficult decisions for your family if you haven't given them your express wishes. A living will can make it much easier for a family to know they are acting as your wish.

Your medical condition and the terms of your directive also will be subject to interpretation. Different institutions and doctors may come to different conclusions. Even though there are times when a living will may not be followed, a patient's wishes are taken very seriously. One of the best ways you can have a say in your medical care, when you are in a coma or otherwise not able to speak for yourself, is through the instructions of an advance medical directive.

Carefully chose the person you designate as your health-care agent. The person you appoint should be able to do three important things:

• They need to understand what the doctor is saying about your treatment options,

• They need to be able to handle the stress from making these hard decisions, and

• They must be able to keep your best interests and desires in mind when making those decisions.

You increase your chances of having your wishes followed by your doctor when you have a health-care agent advocating on your behalf. You can name your agent by way of a health-care proxy, or by assigning a medical power of attorney. You will name someone you trust to make medical decisions on your behalf in the event that you can't do so for yourself in a legal document that will apply to all instances when you're incapacitated, not just if you're terminally ill. Don't put off taking this important step to protect your peace of mind and that of your family.