If you were to die unexpectedly, your family would rely on your will or a living trust to put your final affairs in order and pass along your property to the people you'd chosen to receive it. But if you became seriously ill or were injured, those documents would be useless to them. They'd need instruments that gave them the legal authority to act on your behalf while you're still alive. The following two legal documents can accomplish this:

A health care directive allows you to name an agent to act on your behalf with respect to medical decisions. If you could no longer communicate with your doctors, your agent would speak for you and manage your care. The directive also allows you to state your wishes for end-of-life care.

A durable power of attorney for finances lets you name someone to manage your finances if you're unable to.

These are prudent planning instruments to have, regardless of your current age or physical condition. After all, injuries and illnesses can happen unexpectedly to anyone at any time. If you're suddenly unable to manage your daily affairs or communicate with your doctors, your family can rely on these documents to do both. And at the end of life, they can also provide a clear statement of your wishes concerning treatment – keeping this agonizing and heartbreaking decision within your family and out of the public spotlight. If you don't create these documents before you're unable to manage your own affairs, your family will have to go to court and ask to be appointed as your conservator or guardian. That's the only way that they would be allowed to step in and manage things on your behalf.

You have a constitutional right to control your medical treatment. In 1990, the United States Supreme Court ruled that if you state your wishes about end-of-life treatment in a clear and convincing method, your wishes should be respected by hospitals, physicians, and family members. This is known as a constitutional "right to die," free of government intrusion into the intimate matter of how and when one's life should end.

Every state now provides health care directive forms that can be used to both name a health care agent and authoritatively declare your medical wishes. The majority of states provide two health care documents: one in which you state your wishes regarding the use of life-sustaining medical treatment (often called a living will); and one in which you designate a health care agent or proxy (commonly known as a durable power of attorney for health care). The rest of the states combine both documents into one, usually called an advance medical directive.

The forms are widely available, generally free of charge, they're easy to fill out and make legally valid, and you don't need an attorney to do it. The federal government requires every facility that receives Medicare or Medicaid to provide information about health care directives to all newly-admitted patients and to record a patient's health care directives as part of their medical records.


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