It makes sense to want to exercise control over decisions about your health care even when you are physically or mentally unable to do so. But how can a Savvy Lady do that exactly? The best way for Savvy Ladies to accomplish that control is with the combination of a living will and a durable power of attorney for health care. These documents are not nearly as scary as they sound!

Despite the fact that the vast majority of American adults recognize the importance of these two documents only 20 to 30 percent of American adults have them, according to the National Council on Aging. Unfortunately, every few years, a case captures national attention as to why such documents are critical for adults of all ages.

A living will is a person’s written expression of what life-sustaining medical treatment they wish to have or not have should they become terminally ill or on life support and are not able to physically or mentally express that decision to their medical providers. Ideally, the living will should cover such issues as resuscitation, life support technologies, use of artificial nourishment, medication and pain management, and organ donation.

With a properly drafted living will in hand, make a copy and discuss it with your primary physician. Also give a copy and thoroughly discuss it with the person you appoint as your agent for your accompanying durable power of attorney for health care. While hospitals and nursing homes will often accept copies, it’s still best to keep the original in a place your agent can get to easily; for example, don’t put it in a safe deposit box unless the person appointed as your agent has access to that box. It’s also wise to discuss the living will with all those close to you, so the person who ends up making medical decisions on your behalf won’t be battling siblings or other relatives.

And don’t wait until you’re older to draw up a living will. A highly publicized case that received national recognition was the case of a Florida woman (Terry Schiavo) whose situation sparked a 15-year legal and political battle between her husband and her parents. She was only 26 years old when she became incapacitated!

The second key component of any sound plan, and one that’s often overlooked, is the durable power of attorney for health care. With this document, you appoint a person to act as your agent to make medical decisions on your behalf in the event you are incapacitated. While you can be as explicit and as limiting as you like in such a document, it is usually better to arm the agent with broad powers so he or she can handle unforeseen situations.

As with the living will, an attorney should draft this document.

Ultimately, the keys are to complete these documents in advance, be sure they are drafted or reviewed by an attorney, and discuss them thoroughly with those close to you. Also, be sure to review existing documents to verify they are up to date with changes in law. Only then can you be reasonably assured your wishes will be carried out under such difficult circumstances.

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