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Your Estate, Your Way

I am concerned about the problems that disability can cause one's family or friends. Statistics indicate that a person is likely to become seriously disabled or incapacitated for some period of time at least once during his lifetime.

Serious health care decisions are difficult to make. Now, while you are fit, is the best time to decide what kind of health care you would want if you were unable to make your own health care decisions. Unfortunately, when you are seriously ill, you may not be physically or emotionally able to fully participate in these decisions. For this reason, considering and discussing such decisions in advance is not only wise, it is prudent. You can make the situation less difficult for you, your family and your friends, should the need arise, by placing your wishes in writing in advance.

It is possible to create advance directives which, in most cases, will avoid the costly, time-consuming and burdensome legal procedures necessary to appoint a conservator, a guardian or an agent. For example, by using a living will or a power of attorney for health care, you may select the person you wish to act for you should you become incapacitated. An advance directive makes your wishes clear to your family, friends and health care providers, assures that the treatment you receive agrees with your preferences and values, and avoids disagreements over what your family, friends, and medical providers think you want.

A living will, also known as a treatment directive, specifies the kind of life-sustaining care you would want if you had a terminal condition and were unable to make health care decisions on your own. It conveys to your family, friends, and medical providers your attitude, philosophy, and inclinations. A durable power of attorney for health care, on the other hand, is more flexible than a living will and applies to more situations. It is an instrument by which you may designate an agent or attorney-in-fact to make health care decisions on your behalf should you become unable to do so.

It should be noted that a general or durable power of attorney, which commonly applies to financial matters, is insufficient to appoint someone to make health-care decisions for you. However, durable powers may be used for a variety of other purposes. Your agent, named in your durable power, may manage your property for you, pay your bills, sign your tax returns, employ doctors and nurses, and consent to medical treatment for you.

The person you select to act under a living will, power of attorney for health care, or durable power of attorney may be your spouse, one of your adult children, your attorney, a doctor or other health care provider who is not involved in your treatment, a member of the clergy, a business associate, or other close friend or relative. In fact, it is common to have one agent for health care and another agent or guardian for other matters. The most important requirements are that your agent be an adult with the highest standards of integrity and mature judgment.