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Frequently Asked Questions About Advanced Directives

What are advanced directives?

Advanced directives are legal documents in which people express their wishes about the kind of health care they want to receive should they become unable to make their own treatment decisions. There are two types of advanced directives: the living will and the power of attorney for health care. Check with an attorney to find out what is available in your state.

What is a living will?

A living will is a legal document in which people are able to state in advance their desire to receive, or to withhold, life support procedures should they become permanently unconscious or terminally ill and unable to make informed decisions.

When does a living will apply?

The living will applies only when two doctors determine that a patient is either in an irreversible coma or is suffering from a terminal illness and is unable to make decisions for himself/herself. As long as a patient is able to make health care decisions, the living will cannot be used.

What treatments are covered under a living will?

The living will permits the withholding or withdrawal of any treatment that might be considered life-prolonging or that artificially extends the dying process. Some states have special provisions that allow artificial nutrition and hydration to be withheld or withdrawn when patients are in an irreversible coma.

Who can complete a living will?

Anyone over the age of 18 years who is of sound mind can complete a living will. To be legal, it must be witnessed by two adults or can be notarized.

Can a living will be revoked?

A living will can be revoked by a person at any time and in any manner -- by tearing up the living will document, expressing orally to witnesses the desire to revoke the document, or in writing. Health care professionals who witness such revocations will document them in the medical record.

What is a durable power of attorney for health care?

The durable power of attorney for health care is a document that allows patients to specify in advance who should make health care decisions for them should they become unable to make their own health care decisions. The individual named is the agent or attorney-in-fact for the patient.

When does a durable power of attorney for health care take effect?

The durable power of attorney for health care takes effect any time the patient loses the ability to make his or her own health care decisions. Unlike the living will, the patient does not need to be terminally ill or suffering from an irreversible coma.

What treatments are covered under a durable power of attorney for health care?

The durable power of attorney for health care document allows a person to name an agent or attorney-in-fact with broad or specific powers to provide consent or refusal for any type of health care. Durable powers of attorney for health care are very flexible documents, allowing both the naming of an agent to make decisions for the patient when the patient is unable to do so, and the specification of the treatments that the patient wants or does not want to receive.

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