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An Overview of Health Care Directives

It is common for people to communicate their wants and needs, but some people lose this ability as they age, become injured, or become ill. When this happens, they need someone they trust to advocate for them. You can prepare the proper legal documents in advance.

Losing the Ability to Communicate

Unfortunately, there are many ways people can lose their ability to communicate. It can happen suddenly due to a medical incident, such as a stroke. It can also occur due to a coma caused by a head injury or accident.

In some cases, losing the ability to communicate happens gradually, as with Alzheimer’s disease or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). In the case of Alzheimer’s, a person’s memory and cognitive abilities deteriorate before their ability to speak is lost. With ALS, the ability to speak usually goes before other cognitive abilities, but each case can be very different.

However it happens, losing the ability to think and communicate is debilitating. It’s better to prepare than end up unable to communicate critical health care wishes.

Health Care Directives or Advance Directives

By drafting and executing the proper advance directives, you can put your health care wishes in writing, including procedures you want or refuse and who will make decisions on your behalf. Health care directives vary from state to state and may be handled differently depending on the law firm. Three common health care or advance directives are a living will, health care power of attorney, and health care instructions.

Living Will

A living will is a legal document that specifies which medical treatments you want or don’t want if you are in a terminal condition, a coma, or a persistent vegetative state. It directs health care providers to cease or refrain from certain medical or surgical treatments. A terminal condition is described as an incurable, irreversible medical condition brought on by disease, injury, or illness. A person has a terminal condition if their attending physician believes with a reasonable degree of medical certainty that they will die from the condition regardless of continued life-sustaining treatment.

Health Care Power of Attorney

You can use a health care power of attorney document to name a person, or persons, to act as your health care agent. Your agent can make health care decisions on your behalf if you can’t make decisions on your own. You can specify if your agent’s ability to make decisions for you is effective immediately or only takes effect once you are incapacitated.

Unlike a living will, you don’t have to be in a terminal condition for your agent to act on your behalf. Choose your health care agent carefully and make sure they know what your wishes are and that they will carry them out.

Health Care Instructions

Health care instructions can be used alone or with a health care power of attorney document. In your instructions, specify what treatments you want or don’t want if you are in a terminal condition, a coma, or a persistent vegetative state. You can also express other health-related wishes, such as instructions for dialysis, blood transfusions, do-not-resuscitate (DNR) orders, and organ and tissue donation.


HIPAA stands for Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. It’s a privacy rule to protect individuals’ medical records and other personal health information. While it’s generally not considered a health care directive form, it’s often included in a person’s collection of estate planning documents to ensure medical history can be accessed for decision-making.

Sometimes HIPAA language is incorporated into a health care directive document. It’s useful if you want to name people in addition to your health care agents who are allowed to receive your medical records and other personal health information.

Creating Health Care Documents

Talk with your doctor and your family about the types of medical treatments you want and don’t want. And consult with an estate planning attorney to learn about the legal ramifications of health care directives and related documents. An experienced estate planning or elder law attorney can help you create and execute your advance directive documents. Contact us today to schedule a consultation to learn how we can help you plan for your future.

This article offers a summary of aspects of estate planning and elder law. It is not legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice, contact us at 989-495-2555.

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