Avoid confusion about health documents in estate planning

Health Care Power of Attorney


The advance directive may give the agent the power to make end-of-life decisions, or explicitly require the removal of life-prolonging devices.

Advance directives commonly require two doctors to determine that the patient has a terminal condition, that death is imminent and that machines are only artificially prolonging the dying process. The document also usually includes provisions for comfort care and instructions regarding the use of artificial nutrition and hydration.

Because an advance directive only takes effect if you have lost the capacity to make the decision for yourself at the time the decision must be made, if you are cognizant and verbal, you still can make a different choice. This document will not prevent life-saving measures if there is a reasonable chance of recovery.

A third estate planning document is a HIPAA authorization. This document authorizes another person to have access to your protected medical records, similar to the release that you sign when you start with a new medical practice. HIPAA authorization always should be included in your healthcare power of attorney, but may be a standalone document.

The final medical estate planning document is a Do Not Resuscitate form. This document is not for everyone because if executed and kept on your person, first responders will not attempt to resuscitate you. This is most frequently used by people with serious disabilities or illnesses because the process of resuscitation itself may simply cause more harm to them. The best practice is to keep the original executed document on the refrigerator and the bottom signed portion in a special DNR bracelet, worn on your wrist.

Healthcare estate planning documents should be included in every person’s estate plan. By preparing healthcare estate planning documents in advance, you should have peace of mind to know that a person you love will be handling decisions, and that you have given clear instructions as to your preferred treatment options.

Cynthia Griffin is an elder law and estate planning attorney.

Shot of two doctors using a digital tablet during a discussion in a clinic