Key Health Document Most Americans Don’t Have but Should

You may not like the idea of contemplating your own mortality, or that of a loved one. You may procrastinate all year long about putting your final wishes in place. However, this one document is important for yourself, your loved ones and your life. You shouldn’t put it off any longer. Forbes’ recent article titled “Two-Thirds of All Americans Are Missing This Estate Planning Document” explains why.

A health care directive is a legal document that an individual will use to give specific directions for caregivers, in case of dementia or illness. It directs end of life decisions. It also gives directions for how the person wishes their body to be cared for after their death.

This document is known by several different names: living wills, durable health care powers of attorney or medical directives. However, the purpose is the same: to give guidance and direction on making medical and end-of-life decisions.

This document itself is a relatively new one. The first was created in California in 1976, and by 1992, all fifty states had similar laws. The fact that the law was accepted so fast across the country, indicates how important it is. The document provides control when a person is impaired and after their death. That is at the heart of all estate planning.

Yet just as so many Americans don’t have wills, only a third have a health care directive. That’s a surprise, since both estate planning attorneys and health care professionals regularly encourage people to have these documents in place.

A key part of a health care directive is selecting an agent. This is a person who will act as the proxy to make decisions for another person, consistent with their wishes. They will also have to advocate for the person with respect to having treatment continue or shifting to pain management and palliative care. The spouse is often the first choice for this role. An adult child or other close and trusted family or friends can also serve.

The agent’s role does not end at death but continues to ensure that post-mortem wishes are carried out. The agent takes control of the person’s body, making sure that any organ donations are made, if it was the person’s wish.

Once any donation wishes are carried out, the agent also makes sure that funeral wishes are done according to the person’s wishes. Burial is an ancient tradition, but there are many different choices to be made. The health care directive can have as many details as possible, or simply state burial or cremation.

Having a health care directive in place permits an individual to state his or her wishes clearly. Talk with your estate planning attorney about creating a health care directive as part of your comprehensive estate plan.

Reference: Forbes (December 13, 2019) “Two-Thirds of All Americans Are Missing This Estate Planning Document”

Planning for Care in Advance

An aging parent’s health can fail suddenly, or they can have a fall that will unexpectedly put them into a precarious state. Therefore, it is vitally important that legal and medical arrangements be made, while they are still well enough to be an active participant in decisions, advises TAP into Roxbury in the article “Putting Together a Plan of Care.” Here are the steps to get you started:

Advance Directive: This document spells out their wishes regarding future medical care and treatment, if they are no longer able to speak or make decisions on their own behalf.

A Living Will is used to state in advance whether or not they want to have medical treatment, like a feeding tube, ventilator, or heart machine to prolong life, when death is inevitable.

A Durable Health Care Power of Attorney appoints another person to make medical decisions, if the person becomes incapacitated.

A Power of Attorney names someone who will be able to make decisions about their finances, pay bills, and manage real estate and other assets.

A Last Will and Testament provides information about what they would like to happen to their assets upon their demise and names an executor who will be in charge of carrying out their wishes.

Copies of medical insurance cards and any other insurance information, if emergency treatment is needed.

A Do Not Resuscitate (DNR), if they do not wish to be brought back to life during a medical emergency.

A list of medications they are currently taking, as well as doctor’s names and contact information.

A list of professionals, including their estate planning attorney, CPA and financial advisor, and all contact information.

Having all these documents prepared in advance of any emergency will be helpful, if they are ever needed. Keeping them in a safe and accessible location where they can be obtained quickly in an emergency is also important. Do not put them in a safe deposit box, which may be sealed upon their death.

Some seniors are reluctant to have these discussions, although they may be more comfortable having them with a person outside the family, like an estate planning attorney.

Reference: TAP Into Roxbury (October 7, 2019) “Putting Together a Plan of Care”

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