Question: What is the difference between a “living will” and a “durable power of attorney for health care?” Do I need both and, if so, which is more important?
Answer: It is important to know about “advance directives” and how they work. Advance directives are specific instructions about the type of future medical care you want, or do not want, if you become unable to make decisions for yourself. These are documents you prepare and sign in ADVANCE of when you actually need medical care.
Living wills and durable powers of attorney for health care are types of advance directives.
A durable power of attorney for health care names one or more people to make decisions for you if you become mentally incapacitated. The document empowers a person of your choice to speak with members of your care team, obtain second opinions, sign consents, and to make decisions if you are unable to do so. A healthcare power of attorney ensures you can provide instructions on the personal health care decisions that matter most to you. This advance directive also may authorize a loved one to direct doctors to give or withhold life sustaining treatment if were you determined to be near death or permanently unconscious. It is important to note that without this advance directive, loved ones only have a few months in which they can make decisions for you, after which time a court ordered guardian would be required.
In New Hampshire, a living will provides instructions to your medical team if you have not named an individual to make decisions for you, or if there are no individuals available to carry out your wishes. This document focuses on end-of-life care were you to be declared near death or permanently unconscious. A living will provides instructions to your medical team about care choices, but does not name an individual to make any decisions on your behalf.
In New Hampshire, these two advance directives now comprise two sections of the same form. You do not have to fill out both sections but if you do, the instructions should be consistent. You can find these documents at hospitals or nursing homes, and on line at www.healthynh.com. An attorney also could prepare these documents for you when preparing other estate planning documents and help you ensure the documents express your personal wishes.