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Opinion: Save time, stress later with a health care directive now

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Planning for your health care decisions has always been a vital aspect of a complete estate plan but has taken on increased importance during the global pandemic and the novel medical emergencies that have surfaced.

As individuals age and become more susceptible to medical issues, it becomes crucial to outline, in advance, how you want medical decisions to be made during periods of your incapacity and to appoint the individuals who have authority to implement those wishes. These decisions are most commonly outlined in a document known as an advance health care directive, aka a living will.

This document generally outlines specific health conditions and circumstances in which a person desires life-sustaining medical treatment to be sustained or withdrawn. Most commonly, these conditions include comas, incurable diseases and permanent brain impairment, as well as other illnesses that are deemed to be medically irreversible or incurable. In such cases, it is generally the desire that life support be withdrawn so that an individual may die peacefully.

On the other hand, situations exist in which a person might specifically direct that life support be sustained, i.e., if the attending medical professional deems the medical condition to be reversible or curable. All of these decisions are outlined in writing and in advance of such conditions taking place.

Advance health care directives also allow you to appoint trusted family members or friends to implement your health care wishes during periods of incapacity.

While these health care agents are generally granted the authority to sign do not resuscitate orders and make decisions regarding end-of-life care, they also have the ability to assist with other, less life-threatening health care decisions (e.g., consenting to surgery or medication, moving you from a hospital to a care facility, switching doctors, etc.). Your chosen health care agent is usually also granted the authority to implement your wishes regarding funeral and burial arrangements after death, and to authorize or deny organ donation based on your previously expressed desires.

Due to the importance of these decisions, it is advisable to name an individual (or multiple individuals) who you trust, who clearly understands your medical wishes, and who will be readily willing and available to take action when the need arises.

Determining who has the authority to make these decisions on your behalf during incapacity becomes much more difficult and time-consuming in the absence of a properly prepared health care directive.

Often, if an individual has failed to plan for their medical care, family members will be forced to petition a court to appoint a legal guardian to obtain authority over health care matters. This process can take several months and thousands of dollars to complete, leaving your health care in limbo throughout that period. Additionally, several individuals may have an equal right to be named legal guardian over your personal affairs, resulting in unnecessary disputes and litigation over who should obtain such authority. It is possible that the individual who is finally appointed as your legal guardian has widely different thoughts from your own regarding how your medical treatment should be handled. Guardianships also require ongoing oversight by the court for the duration of the relationship.

To avoid such contentious and confusing situations, and to ensure with absolute certainty that your medical care will be handled by trusted individuals in accordance with your wishes, it is crucial to prepare a health care directive while you are healthy and clear-minded. Not only will this relatively simple planning step provide you with peace of mind that you will be cared for, but also it will be seen as a gift by your family members.

None of us is invincible, and unexpected emergencies unfortunately occur. While increased birthdays certainly lend added importance to planning for health care matters, each of us, regardless of age or health, should take the simple step of signing an advanced health care directive as part of a complete estate plan. Why would you want to leave such important matters up to chance?

Andy Peebles is an estate planning and business attorney with the law firm of Carnahan Evans PC. He can be reached at apeebles@carnahanevans.com.

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