Life Changes

Why You Should Create a Health Care Directive

The coronavirus pandemic may have you thinking about making sure your wishes are followed if you become incapacitated. A health care directive could be the answer.

May 08, 2020

Some may think of a health care directive as something you put in place for the end of your life, but this is not its only use.

There are at least two other instances when it is useful to have a health care directive in place:

  • If you become incapacitated over a short period of time
  • If you are a young adult who is over 18 and heading to college

A health care directive is a legal document that allows you to express your health care preferences and to designate authority to make care decisions for you, if you cannot make them yourself.  Although the terminology may vary from state to state, health care directives generally do three things:

  • One part of the document, often referred to as a Living Will or Advance Directive allows you to express your preferences about your medical treatment in advance of being unable to make decisions yourself.
  • A Power of Attorney (POA) for Health care (also known as a Durable POA for Health Care or Health Care Proxy) designates a trusted person to make decisions for you when you are unable to communicate or make decisions on your own.
  • A privacy authorization under HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) makes it possible for health care providers to share private medical information with the agent you designate.

State laws vary, so it’s wise to work with an attorney to assure that your document uses state-appropriate language, is executed properly, and reflects your specific needs and preferences.   Some states (or state bar associations) provide official or recommended forms for the public.

Short-term incapacitation

While the coronavirus is top of mind, other serious, but temporary illnesses or other limiting medical conditions may also occur that could create short-term incapacitation.

Examples may include: surgery that will require a longer than usual recovery period, cancer treatments, side-effects from specific medications, and mental health issues.

During such times it may give you peace of mind to have someone you trust who will be able to communicate with medical professionals, share that information with you later, and even make decisions for you if necessary.  In addition, a Health Care Power of Attorney can help facilitate quality care because it authorizes communication between your designated representative and medical professionals, insurance companies, pharmacies, and hospitals.

Benefits include:

  • Ensuring that doctors communicate important medical information with your agent, who in turn can keep other family members or caregivers informed.
  • Allowing an authorized person to communicate with insurance companies, billing departments, and pharmacies, and schedule appointments on your behalf.

This documentation can be especially important for individuals who are not married.  Designating someone in advance is important – not just for you, but also so that children, parents, partners, friends or others who care about you are not left powerless to help. 

A health care directive for your adult child

If your child is age 18 or older and going away to college or moving away for an employment opportunity, you may want to assure that he or she executes a health care directive and names an agent, either you or a trusted friend or relation, who can make decisions.

This is important to assure that parents will retain the ability to talk with doctors and hospitals, and make health care decisions if your child is unable to communicate or incapable of making decisions on their own. It’s a scenario you never want to have to consider as a parent, but it’s a document you will be thankful to have in place if you ever need it.

You also may want to consider the need for parents to communicate with doctors, hospitals, pharmacies, and insurance companies.  The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), is a privacy law that prevents medical care providers and insurance companies from releasing information about a person’s current medical condition or medical records unless authorization has been given. In many families, young adults understand why it’s beneficial to assure that parents can help in the event of a serious illness or medical emergency.

Protecting yourself just makes sense

Creating a health care directive can be part of a wider estate planning conversation. You will want to consult trusted professionals, including a financial advisor, an estate-planning attorney, and an accountant. They know the questions to ask and can help you avoid potential pitfalls.

If you don’t currently have relationships with these individuals, a financial advisor is a good place to start. He or she can discuss his or her role in the planning process and can refer you to an estate planning attorney who can work with you to draw up the necessary documents.

Additional Resources

Estate planning checklist: Here are 10 documents to get started.

Are you prepared for a financial emergency?

Wells Fargo Advisors and its affiliates do not provide tax or legal advice. Please consult with your tax and/or legal advisors before taking any action that may have tax and/or legal consequences.

Any estate plan should be reviewed by an attorney who specializes in estate planning and is licensed to practice law in your state.