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Health Care Advance Directives Should Accompany Your Will

In the last edition of Wabanaki Legal News, we told you about wills and why you might want one. In this article, we talk about “Advance Directives.” They are important documents that control how you are cared for when you can no longer care for yourself.

Perhaps you know about the two most common advance directives by other names: “Power of Attorney” and “Living Will.”

The term "Advance Directives" describes legal documents you can complete to express your wishes on how you want your future health care managed if you become unable to make these decisions.  Making these decisions yourself while you are still physically and mentally capable of doing so insures that  your wishes will be followed when future decisions need to be made about your health care.  Your Advance Directives can tell your family and health care providers how you want your future health care managed.  Without an Advance Directive, these decisions could be made by family members or physicians.

Living Will

One of the Advance Directive documents is call a “Living Will.”  This document expresses your wishes about your health care when you need medical treatment.  A living will is written direction that states what kind of treatment you want if you ever have a serious illness and cannot express your wishes.  This directive will go to your health care provider.  With a living will, your health care provider will know what kind of treatment you want even if you are incapable of speaking or of making a competent decision when the time comes.  For example, you may not want a machine to feed you or breathe for you, but you may want medical treatment such as pain killer medication to keep you comfortable.  Your living will document will state that you do not want feeding or breathing tubes. 

Health Care Power of Attorney

A “Durable Health Care Power of Attorney” gives someone else the power and your permission to make health care decisions for you if you cannot make those decisions yourself.  That person is called the Health Care Representative.    It is very important that you talk with someone you trust as well as the person you want to name as your Health Care Representative before you sign anything.  It is also important that the person knows what your health care choices are.  You may decide to name a child, other family member or a trusted friend as your Health Care Representative.  You should also name alternative representatives in case your first choice cannot or will not serve.  You can also list special instructions for your health care provider or family.  You can list a spiritual preference, decisions regarding organ donation, funeral arrangements and where you would like to be when you die.  You can also say if any other individuals will get a copy of your Advance Directive document.  It is your choice whether to give your representative all or some of the following powers over your health care:

  • Make all health care decisions for you, including decisions regarding tests, surgery and medication;
  • Decide whether or not to have food or fluids given to you through tubes or fed into your veins through an IV;
  • Decide whether or not to use treatments or machines to keep you alive or to restart your heart or breathing;
  • Choose who will give you health care and where you will get it, such as hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living settings, home health, or hospice care.

Can I make health care decisions for myself after I sign the Advance Directive?

Yes. You can make decisions about life-sustaining treatment and other health care as long as you are able to do so.  Your Advance Directive will only be used when you are unable to make your health care decisions or communicate them to your health care provider.  You can make health care decisions for yourself and express them to your health care provider as long as you are able.

What if I have signed my Advance Directive, but no longer want it?

You may cancel your Advance Directive at any time.  You can cancel it either in writing, orally (by speaking) or in any manner that communicates your intent to revoke the Advance Directive.   Either you or someone who witnessed you cancel your Advance Directive must tell the health care provider that you cancelled your Advance Directive.  It is important that you let your health care provider know you have cancelled your Advance Directive before you need life-sustaining treatment.  To revoke the designation of your Health Care Representative you must do this in writing, and you should communicate your intent to revoke the designation clearly to your primary physician and to all persons or agencies that were originally notified of the Advance Directive.

Where Can I Get Help?

Health care professionals and attorneys can advise and assist in the preparation of Health Care Directives.  If you have questions, please call the Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project at 888-956-4276 or email at jmitchell@vlp.org

Publication Volume: 
2012.2
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