Living Will and Healthcare Power of Attorney: Don’t Wait!

Dr. Nina Radcliff Written by Dr. Nina Radcliff
SeniorLiving.Org Expert on Anesthesia | Pharmacology | Leadership

I prepared a living will and assigned my husband to be my healthcare representative prior to delivering my first child (approximately 2 years ago). Although a somewhat morbid matter, I wanted to make sure that if something happened to me where I could not make decisions for myself, that my husband and family clearly understood my wishes with regards to life prolonging treatments. I wanted to avoid any conflicts among my family, doctors, or nurses by making my treatment preferences known.

What is a living will?

A legal document that informs your health care providers and family about your wishes regarding medical treatments in the event that you are not able to speak for yourself or a physician has determined that you are unable to understand your diagnosis and therapeutic options.

It also allows you to include a description of your beliefs, values, and general care and treatment preferences in the event that your living will does not specifically cover a particular situation. A living will can also be referred to as an advance directive or health care directive.

What is a proxy directive?

Also known as a durable power of attorney for healthcare, it is a legal document that allows you to appoint a person (healthcare representative) to make healthcare decisions for you based upon your wishes in the event that you are not able to speak for yourself. In the event that they are unsure of what you want in a specific situation, they would base their decision on what they believe is in your best interest.

What is the difference between a living will and a proxy directive?

A living will expresses an individual's wishes regarding medical treatment. These wishes are to be followed if the individual is unable to provide instructions at the time medical decisions need to be made. The health care proxy gives the authority to another person (the healthcare representative) to make medical decisions in the event that the patient cannot do so. It is often beneficial to utilize both a living will and a health care proxy because you may be in a specific situation where the treating physician cannot interpret your living will.

Is it expensive to complete these forms?

An attorney can assist with preparing the documents, and it is often included when estate planning documents are drawn up.

However, it is a little known fact that you can attain the forms from the State of New Jersey Department of Health and complete them for FREE. The form can either be notarized OR be signed and dated by you in front of two witnesses who must also sign and date the form. Neither of the witnesses can be the healthcare representative. (http://www.nj.gov/health/advancedirective/forms_faqs.shtml).


Who should have a copy of these documents?

Copies should be provided to your healthcare representative, family members and physicians. Anytime you are admitted to a hospital you will also have the opportunity to provide a copy.

How should I choose my healthcare representative?

The representative must be an adult. They can be a spouse, adult child, family member, friend, religious advisor, or domestic partner. A physician can be appointed as a healthcare representative as long as they are not actively treating you (to avoid any conflict of interest). Consider choosing someone who can understand your values and preferences and therefore make decisions that you would want them to make. You also need to talk with the representative and clearly express your wishes. Do not place them in a situation where they will feel guilty for making a decision that they are unsure of.


Updated: Jun 19, 2013

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