Legal documents called Advance Directives will help you manage some of the legal issues of death. Bear in mind that each state has different laws about advance directives. You can get information and forms specific for your state by contacting the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. 1-800-989-WILL (1-800-989-9455) or online at the Caring Connections Web site at: www.caringinfo.org
The living will is probably the best known of the advance directives. It allows you to legally refuse life-support measures when you are considered to be near the end of your life - usually within six months.
The living will is widely available and serves a very useful purpose. However, it is much less flexible than other advance directives, such as the durable power of attorney for health care (DPAHC). Remember, too, that the living will does not have legal standing in every state. Be sure to find out what your options are.
Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care (DPAHC)
A durable power of attorney for health care lets you do two things: (1) state your wishes about the kind of medical care you would like to receive; and (2) appoint an agent to make health care decisions for you when you cannot do so for yourself. A DPAHC, like a living will, can help protect you from "heroic" lifesaving measures if you do not want them. However, the two documents have some important differences.
* A living will is good only in case of a terminal illness, whereas a DPAHC can apply to any illness.
* A living will enables you only to refuse treatment, whereas a DPAHC allows you to accept, refuse, or withdraw different forms of a treatment.
* A living will does not allow you to appoint an agent.
In your DPAHC, you can include guidelines for your agent about what kind of health care you would like, under what circumstances. For example, you may indicate that you want everything possible done to keep you alive, no matter what your condition; or you may ask that you not receive any treatment or food if you are in a coma or near death. Although you do not have to write down your wishes, doing so can be reassuring for family members and doctors who see your DPAHC form.
It is especially important to have a dubale power of attorney for health care if you wish to choose your partner or someone who is not a blood relative as your agent. Otherwise, it's possible that your medical decisions will end up being made by a family member who may be unaware of or disagree with your wishes.
The agent agent named in your durable power of attorney for health care has the power to make medical decisions only when you are unable to make decisions for yourself (ie. if you are in a coma or are taking medications which affect your alertness). The agent can make decisions only about your medical care, not about finances or other matters.
The durable power of attorney offers greater flexibility and can be more useful than a living will. However, it may not be legally recognized in your state. Be sure to check. Some states have advance directives in addition to the Living Will and DPAHC, which are not covered here.
Creating a DPAHC means making many decisions. The following covers each of the major issues likely to appear on your state's DPAHC form.
Chosing a Health Care Agent
Begin by deciding who you want as your agent. The person can be a friend or family member, but cannot be the physician who is providing your care. Some things to consider:
First, the person should generally be available in the geographic area where you live. If the agent is not available to make decisions for you, he or she is not much help. Just to be on the safe side, you can also name a backup agent, who would act in your behalf if your first choice agent is not available.
Second, you must be sure that this person thinks like you or at least is willing to carry out your wishes.
Third, the person must be someone who you feel would be able to carry out your wishes. Sometimes a partner or child is not the best agent because this person is to close to you emotionally thereby making some decisions difficult or impossible. Be sure the person you select as your agent is up to the task.