Will, without more, is not the document most people need. As a threshold goal,
most people should have a Health Care Power of Attorney (or Health Care Proxy)
that names a trusted person as agent or proxy. A still better alternative is to
execute both documents or a single, combined "Advance Directive" that names a
proxy and provides guidance about one's wishes. Unfortunately, because of
statutory restrictions or inconsistencies within state law, many practicing
attorneys advise clients to execute separate rather than combined documents.
State advance directive laws are slowly moving toward acceptance of flexible,
combined advance directives, but the states differ significantly in this
The reason for the primary importance of the proxy appointment is
simple. Most standardized living will forms are quite limited in what they can
accomplish and what conditions they cover. For example, most provide
instructions that apply only if the individual is in a terminal condition or
permanently unconscious, yet the majority of health care decisions that need to
be made for patients lacking capacity concern questions about day-to-day care,
placement options, and treatment options short of "pulling the
Moreover, most boilerplate instructions express fairly general
sentiments about not wanting treatments that serve only prolong the dying
process. Relatively few people disagree with this sentiment. However, applying
it to a particular set of facts is more difficult than at first meets the eye.
Virtually no interventions only prolong the dying process. Any intervention can
produce multiple consequences, some predictable, some not so predictable. If an
aggressive and possibly painful course of treatment will give the patient a 1 in
3 chance of recovering to the point of being able to converse again with loved
ones for a least a few more months, is that hope enough to treat aggressively?
What if the odds were 1 in 25?
Living will instructions always need
interpretation, even when the terminal nature of an illness is clear. An agent
or proxy under a health care power of attorney can do precisely that. The proxy,
who should know the patient's values intimately, can respond to the actual facts
and variables known when an actual health care decision needs to be made. Short
of possessing a crystal ball, no one can anticipate the specific and often
complicated circumstances fate will place them in. The proxy acts not only as
legal decision-maker, but also as spokesperson, analyzer, interpreter, and
One caveat: if there is no one close to the individual whom he
or she trusts to act as health proxy, then the health care power of attorney
should not be used. In this circumstance, the Living Will is safer, despite its
Written Advance Directives Are
Not Legal in Every State.
False. Every state recognizes both the proxy and living will type
advance directives, although the laws of each state vary considerably in
terminology, the scope of decision-making addressed, restrictions, and the
formalities required for making an advance directive.
A more frequently
raised question is whether an advance directive written in one state will be
recognized in other states. In other words, is the directive portable across
state lines. Many states expressly recognize out-of-state advance directives if
the directive meets either the legal requirements of the state where executed or
the state where the treatment decision arises. Several states are silent on this
question. If there is doubt, the rules of the state where treatment takes place,
not the state where the advance directive was signed, will normally control.
However, even if an advance directive fails to meet technicalities of state law,
health providers still should value the directive as important, if not
controlling, evidence of the patient's wishes. The threshold problem with
most state provisions addressing portability is that they presumably require
providers to be fully knowledgeable of the other state's law. Most use language
derived from the Uniform Probate Code and similar to the following provision
included in the now defunct Uniform Rights of the Terminally Ill Act:
A declaration executed in another
state in compliance with the law of that state or of this State is validly
executed for purposes of this [Act].
Colorado and Utah offer a more
user-friendly approach to recognizing out-of state directives:
Unless otherwise provided therein, any
medical power of attorney or similar instrument executed in another state shall
be presumed to comply with the provisions of this [Act] and may, in good faith,
be relied upon by a health care provider or health care facility in this
Thus, in these,
states providers may assume that the out-of-state directive is valid unless they
have actual knowledge to the contrary.
telling my doctor what I want is no longer legally
it is better to have a written Advance Directive, oral statements remain
important both on their own and as supplements to written
Oral instructions may take many forms. A person physically
unable to execute an advance directive may provide oral instructions that are
reduced to writing by the doctor or another person, acting for the patient.
Several states treat such statements as formal Advance Directives if witnessed
properly. Less formal instructions in the nature of conversations with family,
friends, or physicians will not have the same legal status of a written Advance
Nevertheless, informal oral statements have two important
attributes. First, good health care decision-making requires good communication
among all interested parties, and oral communication is our most natural and,
indeed, primary mode of communication. Ideally, a formal advance directive
serves to aid this kind of communication, not to replace it. Second, oral
statements constitute important evidence of one's wishes and help expand upon,
clarify, and reinforce individual preferences. The contents of the written
Advance Directive should reflect a continuing conversation among the individual,
physician, family, and close friends.
4. An Advance
Directive means "Don't treat."
False. While it is true that most people use Advance Directives to
avoid being kept alive against their wishes when death is near, it is a mistake
to assume that the existence of an advance directive means, "Don't treat."
Advance directives are also used to say that the individual wants all possible
treatments within the range of generally accepted medical standards. What is
said depends upon one's particular wishes and values. Moreover, even when an
advance directive eschews all life-sustaining treatments, one should always
assume (and insist upon) continuing pain control, comfort care and respect for
When I name a proxy in my
Advance Directive, I give up some control and flexibility.
False. An individual gives up no authority
or choice by doing an Advance Directive. As long as the person remains able to
make decisions, his or her consent must be obtained for medical treatment.
Health care providers cannot legally ignore the patient in favor of one's agent
or written instruction. Indeed, in most states, health care advance directives
are "springing." That is, they have no legal effect unless and until the patient
lacks the capacity to make a health care decision. In a minority of states,
immediately effective directives are permissible, but the maker always retains a
right to override the proxy or revoke the directive.
There are situations
in which a competent patient abdicates decision-making by saying, for example,
"Do whatever my daughter thinks is best." However, this form of delegation of
decision-making is effective only from moment to moment and needs to be
rechecked at every significant decision point. Neither the proxy nor a written
instruction can override one's currently expressed choice.
6. I must use a prescribed Advance Directive form for my
Usually false. In
most states, you do not have to use a specific form. About 37 state statutes
include forms for appointing proxies or for creating comprehensive advance
directives. In the majority of these, the forms are optional. In about 18
states, the forms must be "substantially followed" or certain information
disclosure language must be included in the form. Even with these requirements,
changes and additions to standard language are permissible. Indeed, any form can
and should be personalized to reflect the individual's particular values,
priorities, and wishes. If you do not agree with language contained in an
approved form, change the language. If changing the language creates any doubt
about the validity of the form, then further legal consultation is in order.
Above all, it is a mistake to pick up an "official" form and just sign it
unchanged, without first being sure that it truly reflects one's specific
7. I need a lawyer to do an Advance
No, a lawyer
is not needed. Yes, a lawyer is a helpful resource, but not the only resource,
nor necessarily the best resource for all persons. Advance directives are not
difficult to complete, but they require a few steps to do well. Try these steps
for yourself, even if you already have an advance directive.
obtain an "official" or generally accepted form for your state, plus at least
one or two additional advance directive forms from other sources. See the
attached resource list for forms. This helps you see the variations in topics
different advance directives cover and the alternative instructions they
provide. The form-publishing business may be burgeoning, but most are inadequate
in one respect or another. Even with the best drafting, there is no perfect form
for everyone. People are different.
Second, discuss the contents of the
forms with your physician, close family, and the person you may name as proxy.
Most people find these discussions difficult to initiate, but they are extremely
important. Gather information about your current medical condition and its
implications for future medical problems; clarify your own values and wishes;
and ask your physician, close family, and proxy if they are willing to support
you in the way you want.
Third, complete the form you choose, being sure
to add or modify language to reflect your wishes more accurately. Be sure to
follow the witnessing instructions for your state exactly. Most, but not all
states, require two completely disinterested witnesses. If you have a potential
family conflict, special legal concern, or unusual request, additional legal
drafting help may be needed. These circumstances call for consultation with a
lawyer experienced in personal planning.
8. Doctors and
other health care providers are not legally obligated to follow my Advance
false, but as in many endeavors, reality muddies the waters. As a matter of law,
it is clear that medical providers cannot treat an individual against his or her
wishes. Consequently, if a physician acts contrary to a patient's clear
instruction directive or contrary to the decision of the patient's authorized
proxy, the physician risks the same liability he or she would face if the
physician were to ignore a refusal of treatment by a fully competent patient.
Treatment would constitute a battery. However, a few factors complicate the
First, the doctor or health facility sometimes do not know
about the existence of an advance directive. While federal law requires
hospitals, nursing homes, and home health agencies to ask about and to document
your Advance Directive, the document often does not make it into the appropriate
record. It is up to the patient and those close to the patient you to ensure
that everyone who might need a copy of the directive in fact has a
Second, as noted earlier, people often do not express their wishes
very clearly or precisely in advance directives. Simply using general language
that rejects "heroic measures" or "treatment that only prolongs the dying
process" does not give much guidance. Therefore, interpretation problems may
arise. Giving a proxy broad authority to interpret one's wishes will help avoid
this problem, except that sometimes proxies themselves are not quite sure what
the patient would want done. This fact underscores the importance of discussing
one's wishes and values with the intended proxy.
Third, in most states,
if a physician or facility objects to an Advance Directive based on reasons of
conscience, state law permits the physician or facility to refuse to honor it.
However, facilities must notify the patient of their policies regarding advance
directives at the time of admission. If a refusal occurs, the physician and
facility should provide assistance in transferring the patient to a provider
that will comply with the directive.
Fourth, persons who are dying, but
living in the community, may face problems in having an advance directive
followed if a crisis occurs and emergency medical services (EMS) are called (for
example, by calling "911"). EMS personnel are generally required to resuscitate
and stabilize patients until they are brought safely to a hospital. States are
beginning to address this situation by creating procedures that allow EMS
personnel to refrain from resuscitating terminally ill patients who are
certified as having a "do not resuscitate order" and who have an approved
identifier (such as a special bracelet).
9. If I do not
have an Advance Directive, I can rely on my family to make my health care
decisions when I am unable to make decisions for myself.
This is only partly true. If an individual
does not have an advance directive naming a health decisions agent or proxy,
several states expressly designate default "surrogates," typically family
members in order of kinship, to make some or all health care decisions. Only a
few of these statutes authorize a "close friend" to make decisions, and then
normally only when family members are unavailable.
Even without such
statutes, most doctors and health facilities routinely rely on family
involvement in decision-making, as long as there are close family members
available and there is no disagreement. However, problems can arise because
family members may not know what the patient would want in a given situation, or
they may disagree about the best course of action. Disagreement can easily
undermine family consent. A hospital physician or specialist who does not know
you well may become the default decision-maker.
In these situations,
patients risk having decisions made contrary to their wishes or by persons whom
they would not choose. Moreover, family members and persons close to patients
experience needless agony in being forced to make life and death decisions
without the patient's clear guidance. It is far better to make one's wishes
known and to appoint a proxy ahead of time through an Advance Directive.
10. Advance Directives are a legal tool for old
think of this as an "old" people's issue. It may be natural to link death and
dying issues with old age, but that is a mistake when it comes to advance
directives. Consider that perhaps the most well known landmark court cases those
of Nancy Cruzan and Karen Ann Quinlan involved individuals in their 20's. The
stakes are actually higher for younger persons in that, if tragedy strikes, they
might be kept alive for decades in a condition they would not want. An Advance
Directive is an important legal planning tool for all adults.