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A Few Words About Medical Advance Directives

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Could you imagine your ex-spouse making end-of-life decisions for you?

If you don’t have an ex-spouse, let’s view this scenario another way: If you were in the hospital and the doctors were 50/50 on whether you would pull through a life-threatening illness, would you want to decide who determines if you stay on life support?

Although nobody wants to talk about the morbid idea of being on life support, every adult should do it.  If you’re reluctant or saying to yourself “My spouse or my parents will take care of this,” then you probably didn’t hear the recent news story surrounding Khloe Kardashian and Lamar Odom.

In short, Lamar Odom, a former NBA player, was hospitalized and then slipped into a coma. It was then revealed that, even though they were divorced, Odom’s ex-wife, Khloe Kardashian, was responsible for making his medical decisions. Although the two had filed for divorce, it was not finalized at the time of his hospitalization due to a backlog in the courts, and Odom did not have a living will.

Therefore, Kardashian was left to make critical medical decisions on his behalf.

Talking about life support, nutrition, hydration, pain medication, resuscitation in the event of a horrible injury or illness can be uncomfortable and possibly emotional, but it’s important to talk about and document your wishes with your family. Here are some important medical advance directives you want to have in place before a crisis.

Living Will

A living will is written legal instructions that outline your medical care preferences should you be unable to make those decisions yourself. In the case of a terminal illness, coma, late stage dementia or end of life, this document lets doctors and caregivers know what choices to make that will align with what you want. A living will lets the people around you know what you want and relieves them of the burden of making vital decisions.

Health Care Proxy

A health care proxy is a legal document that allows you to assign another person the power to make health-related decisions for you if you are incapacitated. The person you name in the document will have the same rights to request or refuse treatment that you would if capable of making and communicating decisions.

Durable Power of Attorney

A durable power of attorney (DPOA) is similar to a health care proxy in that it names a person to make medical decisions for you if you are unable. However, this person will also have the power to make banking decisions, sign Social Security checks for you, apply for disability, and write checks from your account to pay your bills if you become unable to do these things.

With a DPOA, you can assign different people to act on your behalf for specific affairs. For example, one person can be designated the DPOA of health care or medical power of attorney, similar to the health-care proxy, while another person can be made the legal DPOA.

Once you have these advance directives in place, be sure to update them when anything that affects them changes such as the following:

  • Divorce or separation
  • A change in your health or treatment
  • A person named as a proxy moves away, dies or is no longer willing or able to serve;
  • You move to another state

If you have not put these affairs in order, you are likely saying to yourself something to the effect of, “This is important; I should do this.”

The unfortunate reality is that you probably will not do anything about it for some time. Your life is probably busy and you think “There are more pressing matters to deal with then this.” You will need it to “hit home” before you do something about it. Perhaps you will see your parents going through the need for these documents, or perhaps a friend is disabled and his family is left to make decisions.

It is wise not to wait for one of these situations to prompt you. Instead, get a Post-It note and write down “Contact estate planning attorney. Get my affairs in order.” Keep that post it in the middle of your desk until you get it done. You will be happy you did and your loved ones will be grateful if they are ever left in the unfortunate role of making life and death decisions on your behalf.

Nicholas Ibello is wealth manager and associate vice president; and Gary S. Williams, CFP, CRPC, AIF, is the president and founder; of Williams Asset Management, in Columbia. They can be reached at 410-740-0220 or at Nick@WilliamsAsset.com or Gary@WilliamsAsset.com.