Thus far our “Estate Planning Basics” series has focused primarily on financial documents, but the documents pertaining to your health care are an equally important part of any estate plan.

The most important healthcare document in your estate plan will be your healthcare directive. Depending on where you live, this document naming a healthcare agent and detailing your wishes for decisions made on your behalf and end of life treatment may also be called a living will, an advance healthcare directive, healthcare power of attorney, or a personal directive.

Perhaps the most important part of a healthcare directive is the nomination of your healthcare agent. This is the person who will be making decisions (potentially life-and-death decisions) about your medical treatment in the event that you are unable. The person you choose should be trustworthy, sensitive to the concerns of your other loved ones, and have the strength to ensure that your wishes are followed—even if those wishes are difficult or unpopular.

Like a financial power of attorney, the advance healthcare directive can be very general or very specific in its instructions. In addition to a nomination of agent, most healthcare directives also include (but are not limited to):

  • Instructions for life-saving treatment (or your desire for a DNR order)
  • Any existing medical conditions
  • Your preferences for alternative medical treatment, if any
  • The name of your primary care physician
  • Your instructions for the final disposition of your remains

While some people have very specific preferences for medical treatment and end-of-life care, others prefer to leave these decisions in the hands of their loved ones, letting those who care about them make the choices that will bring the most comfort. Whether you choose to leave detailed instructions for care or leave the decision-making to others, your healthcare directive should reflect your choice. We all know the tale of Terry Schiavo, whose lack of a living will resulted in a seven year court battle between her husband and her parents over her end of life care… Don’t let the same thing happen to you or your family.