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Understanding Advance Health Care Directives and “Living Wills”

You often hear the term “living will” used to describe a document outlining a person’s wishes in the event they become incapacitated or are otherwise unable to communicate with medical personnel. Actually, a living will is not a will at all. A will-i.e., a last will and testament-is a document that only takes effect after your death and relates to the disposition of your property.
In California, when we speak about a “living will,” we actually refer to one part of a document known as an advance health care directive. A health care directive performs multiple functions. First, it allows you to designate a person to make health care decisions for you if you become incapacitated. This person or agent would then hold your power of attorney for health care purposes only; he or she would not have control over your property or financial affairs unless you sign a separate power of attorney for that purpose.

The second part of the advance directive is what is commonly known as the living will. This part allows you to provide instructions regarding your care. For example, you might instruct your doctors not to prolong your life through artificial means should you fall into a coma. You may also specify whether you want to receive medication to ease your pain even if it might hasten your death.

The living will and the appointment of a health care agent must work in tandem. You can limit your agent’s authority to certain matters, or you might give the agent broad discretion to decide whether or not to prolong your life. The agent is legally obligated to honor your wishes, both as written in the advance directive and as you may have orally expressed. Of course, writing your wishes down can help alleviate any confusion on the part of the agent or your health care providers.

Finally, in the event of your death, an advance directive may specify your wishes regarding organ donation. You can designate which organs you wish to donate and specify the purposes (transplant, research, et cetera) for which they may be used.

Keep in mind, an advance health care directive is a binding legal document. It should not be haphazardly scribbled on a notepad. You should work with an experienced California estate planning lawyer who can explain all of the legal aspects of the advance directive and its impact on your future medical care.

The final advance health care directive must be signed before two witnesses or acknowledged by a notary public. You should make sure to provide copies of your signed advance directive to your primary physician, your other health care providers, and of course the agent you name under your power of attorney. If you have any questions or concerns about a California advance health care directive, contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady in San Diego today.

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