Executing a Health Care Directive: Your Questions Answered

People today live longer than ever before. You may assume that you have many healthy years left in your life, but you don’t know how many years that will be. Now is the time to complete a health care directive. No matter your age, a health care directive ensures your family and doctors handle your medical treatment and end-of-life care the way you want.

Here, we’ll answer your questions about executing a health care directive in Washington state.

What Is a Health Care Directive?

A health care directive is a legally binding document that tells your loved ones and caretakers your preferences for medical care. This document will help them make important medical decisions, especially if you lose the ability to make them yourself.

In your directive, you can name a person or agent (known as the attorney-in-fact) to make medical decisions for you if you cannot. This person could include your spouse or another trusted relative. You cannot name your doctor or other health care provider unless they are an immediate relative.

In your health care directive, you can include:

  • Instructions for end-of-life care, including whether you would prefer your life to be artificially prolonged. If you are in a permanent unconscious position and/or medical authorities have determined that continued care would only serve to prolong the dying process, you can elect to accept or refuse that care. You can also accept or refuse nutrition or hydration to prolong your life.
  • Whether you prefer to donate your organs or tissues after your death.
  • Any other instructions or preferences regarding your health care, including where you wish to receive treatment and whether you prefer not to receive certain treatments.

You and two witnesses should sign this document. Your witnesses cannot be related to you and cannot be entitled to any portion of your estate or interested in receiving your organs. You also can’t use your doctor, their employees, and any other employees at your healthcare facility as witnesses.

Make sure you give copies to your lawyer, your attorney-in-fact, and your doctor. Also, keep a copy in a safe place.

When Should I Complete One?

You can complete a health care directive as young as age 18. After age 18, you’re never too young or too old to complete one. No matter your age, an illness or injury could render you unconscious or incapable of making health care decisions. While you certainly hope this won’t be the case, it’s better to make your decisions now.

What Happens If I Don’t Complete One?

If you do not complete a health care directive, your closest relatives will make your health care decisions. While you may trust them to make the right decisions, it could also cause them a lot of stress if they do not know what you would prefer-and they may disagree with each other.

Not completing a health care directive may also increase the stress on your doctor. Without a health care directive, he or she will need to get a consensus from your family for your care. It’s much easier when he or she knows your preferences and who you prefer to make medical decisions for you.

What Happens in an Emergency?

In an emergency situation, doctors will not have time to consult your health care directive-they will make decisions to preserve your life. Once they preserve your life, your doctors can evaluate the health care directive and act accordingly.

If you have a serious health condition, you can fill out a separate form called the Physician Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment (POLST). Like a health care directive, this form lets physicians know the treatments you prefer or don’t prefer. The POLST form travels with you, whether you are at home, in the hospital, or in a care center. It is the first form doctors and nurses see in your clinical record.

What Happens If I’m Pregnant?

If you are pregnant, your doctors have the right to ignore your wishes in order to preserve the baby’s life.

Can I Change My Mind?

You can revoke your health care directive at any time by executing a revocation or destroying the documents.

If a lawyer helped you execute your health care directive, you should inform him or her of the change. He or she can help you revoke your health care directive and create a new one. Make sure you inform your family and doctors of the changes as well.

How Can a Lawyer Help?                                                      

A lawyer can provide the legal forms you need to complete a health care directive. He or she can also guide you in making legal decisions, such as choosing your attorney-in-fact. Your lawyer can also help you create a will and make other end-of-life decisions.

When you’re young, you don’t want to think about the end of your life. Yet, making these decisions now can give you and your family peace of mind. Reduce future stress on your family and doctors; create your health care directive now while you’re still healthy.

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