Importance of Having an Advance Health Care Directive

Importance of Having an Advance Health Care Directive

An Advance Health Care Directive (“AHCD”) is a document which most anyone can benefit from.  Its primary purposes are to (1) nominate an agent to make medical decisions for you and (2) provide information to your agent about the types of medical decisions you would want made on your behalf.

Sometimes people put off getting an AHCD because they are afraid that if they nominate an agent to make medical decisions for them that their doctors will stop listening to them and will only take instructions from the agent.  This fear is unfounded.

A patient can choose the circumstances under which their agent is authorized to act on the patient’s behalf.  For example, the patient can choose to authorize the agent to act only when the patient’s primary physician determines that the patient is unable to make his/her own health care choices. Or, the patient can authorize the agent to make decisions only in the event that the primary physician and another person of the patient’s choice agree that the patient is unable to make health care decisions.  Many of my clients like this option: the agent is authorized to make health care decisions immediately, but if the patient has the mental capacity to make his/her own decisions, the agent shall not have the authority to make any health care decision with which the patient disagrees.

Another reason why AHCDs are so important is because this is where you can document the types of medical treatment you want (or don’t want).  For example, when I talk to my clients about the circumstances under which my clients might want to be on life support, I get all kinds of responses.  Some clients tell me they do not want to be on life support for any reason whatsoever, while others say they want to be on life support as long as possible.  I also have clients tell me they want to be on life support only if it would be necessary to help them overcome a temporary medical condition.

Having your medical treatment preferences in writing can be extremely helpful to your loved ones.  When your agent knows what decision you would want made on your behalf, it can make difficult decisions easier for the person who has to make the choice.  Oftentimes when agents are called upon to make a decision, the patient’s medical condition is serious and many agents in this situation feel different emotions (anxiety, fear, anger, guilt, etc.).  In fact, a client recently told me that she felt far less guilt when having to make a serious decision for her loved one because she knew the choice she made was what the patient wanted, even though it was not the choice the agent wanted to make. The more information we can give an agent who is asked to make hard decisions in times of great stress, the easier we make the agent’s job.

Another reason it is important to have your medical treatment preferences in writing is to help prevent family arguments.  Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for a patient’s loved ones to disagree over decisions that need to be made for the patient (ex: to keep the patient on life support or remove the patient from life support).  In situations like this, having the patient’s preferences spelled out in an AHCD can help loved ones grapple with the patient’s choices, and can inform the judge (if it comes to that) what the patient would have wanted.

It comes down to this:  If you want your wishes honored, put them in writing.  Don’t make others guess as to what you would have wanted.

For more information about Advance Health Care Directives or other estate planning questions, please contact attorney Lorilee DeSantis at the Law Offices of Lorilee DeSantis; (707) 542-2889 or our contact form.

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