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The Basics of Advance Directives

Some types of health conditions, like Alzheimer's disease, mean that at some point you might not be able to make your own decisions about the health care you get. In these cases, it helps to have legal documents with instructions on the kind of treatment you want. These documents are called advance directives.

There are two types of them:

  • Living will
  • Power of attorney

States have different laws about advance directives and how they’re applied, so check with a lawyer to learn the rules for where you live.

Living Will

This legal document lets you specify whether or not you want doctors to use life support procedures if you become permanently unconscious or can no longer make informed decisions.

It lets doctors know if they should use or withhold any treatment that might prolong your life, like putting you on a respirator if you stop breathing. In some states, life support includes giving food and water when a person is in an irreversible coma.

A living will goes into effect only when two doctors decide that you’re either in a coma and won’t recover or you have a terminal illness and can’t make decisions for yourself.

Power of Attorney

The “durable power of attorney for health care” is a document that lets you state who should make health care decisions for you if you’re no longer able to make them yourself. The person you name is called the agent or attorney-in-fact.

The document lets you name an agent and specify the treatments you want or don’t want to have. Unlike a living will, you don’t have to be terminally ill or in a coma for a power of attorney to take effect. It applies anytime you lose your ability to make health care decisions.

You can name anyone over age 18 as your agent, except for your doctor or his employees. The agent has no legal obligation to serve and isn’t responsible for the financial costs of your treatment. Only one agent can serve at a time, but you can name other agents to fill in if your first choice isn’t able or willing to fill the role.

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