Everything You Need to Know about Advance Directives

A family facing a health crisis can rely on an advance directive.

Having a patient’s healthcare wishes heard and known is important. When a patient becomes incapacitated or is unable to communicate, an advance directive can speak for them. An advance directive is a legal document that outlines your health care wishes for family and health care professionals in case you cannot communicate them yourself.

Why Get an Advance Directive?

Life can be unpredictable. If you are serious about your loved ones and medical staff honoring your healthcare wishes, you should get an advance directive even if you’re in good health. Having an advance directive removes the burden of guessing what you would have wanted from your loved ones. Without an advanced directive, a healthcare professional may act based on what they believe is in your best interest. Keep in mind these decisions will not necessarily be in line with your wishes. If you have an advance directive, your loved ones have a clear plan for carrying out your wishes. 

What Are the Types of Advance Directives? 

There are several types of advance directives. Depending on your wishes and situation, an estate plan may include any of the following advance directives:

  • Health care power of attorney. A healthcare power of attorney is a legal document that appoints an individual you trust to make healthcare decisions when you cannot communicate your wishes for medical treatment. A healthcare power of attorney can be exercised whenever you cannot communicate your healthcare wishes because of an acute or medical emergency or prolonged illness. 
  • Living will. A living will informs loved ones and medical staff which life-saving treatments a patient would like to receive. A living will goes into effect based on any conditions described in the document. 
  • Do not resuscitate order (DNR). A DNR is an order signed by a physician instructing health care providers not to use CPR if a patient’s heart or breathing stops. This DNR is generally put into your medical record and can transfer from state to state. 
  • Physician orders for life-saving treatment (POLST). A POLST is a lesser-known advance directive. It provides an end-of-life care plan based on the patient’s preference and input from a physician. It is only valid if both the patient and physician sign it. 

How to Set up an Advance Directive

States vary in their requirements for advance directives. You may wish to discuss advance directives with an attorney. This conversation will determine what best suits your healthcare needs and personal preferences. In certain jurisdictions, advance directives require a witness and notary to be valid.

Discuss the contents of your advance directives with family and friends who may be put in a position to carry them out. Keep your original advance directives safe with an attorney or in a safety deposit box. It’s also a good idea to distribute copies to loved ones, healthcare professionals, and close friends. 

How Often Should You Review Your Advance Directives? 

You should revisit your advance directives periodically. A good timeframe is every ten years. What you want when you’re 50 may look different when you’re 70. Also, you’ll want to review the agents you’ve appointed in your healthcare power of attorney to ensure that the people you’ve appointed are still available and preferable for the job.

 Certain circumstances may also require you to revisit your advance directives. They include:

  • A move to another state. If you move to another state, you want to ensure that your advance directive will be valid in your new state. Some states do not honor out-of-state advance directives. 
  • Divorce or marriage. If you remarry or divorce, revisit your advanced directives. Generally, people tend to appoint a spouse in an advance directive. 
  • Disability or a decline in health. If your health declines or you have a disability, you may want to review your advance directives to reflect your current health concerns.

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