What you need to know about advance directives

Help loved ones deal with difficult decisions

Published On: Dec 10 2013 11:04:59 AM CST
signing contract, pen, paperwork

By attorney Keith Morris, Special to THELAW.TV

When someone is critically injured or falls victim to a sudden illness, there are often difficult decisions for loved ones to make in regard to finances and medical care for the incapacitated person.

Having such legal documents in place is important no matter what your age and health status. Accidents and illness can strike at any time, and you don't want to be caught unprepared. Even if you've discussed such scenarios with loved ones and made your wishes known, it still may be difficult for them to make the decisions you'd like them to.

Advanced directives are a legal tool you can use to help relieve that burden for your loved ones if such a tragedy does occur, and everyone over the age of 18 should take this precaution.

What is an advanced directive?

There are several types of advanced directives. Medical directives offer written instructions concerning medical decisions made on your behalf, should you be unable to speak for yourself.

These instructions can outline what type of care you are comfortable with, including what measures should be used to sustain your life. Having such a document in place allows you to exercise your rights in your own medical care, even when you are not able to personally make those wishes clear.

In the event that you become incapacitated through injury or illness, these instructions are given to the person who you have designated to be a decision-maker. That person is charged with the task of making sure your wishes are followed.

Powers of attorney are another advanced directive you should strongly consider. This is a document that designates an agent to make non-medical decisions on your behalf, such as financial transactions, paying bills, applying for Social Security, etc.

When having your power of attorney document drafted, you can describe precisely which responsibilities you are comfortable having your agent take on for you. These responsibilities can be as narrow or as wide reaching as you would like. Having such a document will save your loved ones the frustration and expense of legal action that might be necessary to take care of these responsibilities when you are incapacitated.

There are several different types of powers of attorney documents. A durable power of attorney remains in effect indefinitely unless a termination date is included. A general power of attorney will give broad powers of all areas, but can be narrowed to a specific area of of control. Another type is a special power of attorney, which can be used when you want your agent to have only very specific power. An estate planning or elder law attorney can help you decided which is best in your situation.

Choosing the right person

An attorney can draw up the legal documents for advanced directives, as well as offer advice on choosing the right agent to act on your behalf.

Using the services of an elder law or estate planning attorney can help ensure that the documents are legally binding. You can also get advice on what information to include, and ensure that certain scenarios are addressed.

When choosing an agent, it is highly advisable that you choose someone other than family. In certain situations, your loved ones may find it too difficult to follow your wishes as you've stated them. Designating an objective party to act as your agent can be a relief for your family in these situations.

You'll want to choose someone who is mature and reasonable. Your agent should be able to have candid conversations with your health care providers without becoming too emotional to make the decisions you request of them.

The author, Keith Morris, is a Texas elder law attorney and co-founder of Jones Morris Klevenhagen, L.L.P. He works with clients through all stages of Texas estate planning and probate.