We all want to make our own healthcare decisions. Unfortunately, sometimes the most important decisions have to be made when we’re unable to tell our medical providers what we want. If you haven’t made your wishes known, well-intentioned loved ones may make choices you wouldn’t have wanted. And, conflicts about your care may cause rifts among family members during an already stressful time.
In Arizona, two legal documents can solve much of this problem: a living will (also known as an advance healthcare directive) and a healthcare power of attorney.
Arizona Living Wills
The term “living will” can be confusing, as it’s very different from the will you use to direct who will receive your property when you’re gone. The purpose of a living will is to give medical providers instructions for answering some of the most critical questions regarding your medical care.
Of course, no one can anticipate every medical decision they might be called upon to make and include them in a living will. That’s why a living will is typically coupled with a healthcare power of attorney, which empowers the person of your choosing to make decisions for you if those decisions are not addressed in your advance directive.
What’s In a Living Will?
A living will answers the big questions that typically arise when you are critically ill or near the end of your life. For example, if you are terminally ill, do you want physicians to prolong your life? Do you want to be resuscitated if your heart stops? Do you want to be artificially administered nutrition and hydration if you are terminally ill or in an irreversible coma?
Creating a living will offers the opportunity to answer these serious but predictable questions for your future medical providers, and to provide additional specific instructions as necessary.
The purpose of a living will is to instruct your doctors and other healthcare providers, as well as your healthcare proxy, when you are unable to speak for yourself. For example, your advance directive would be consulted if you were in one of the covered situations and unconscious, or lacked the capacity to make your own decisions. If you are conscious and clear-headed and can consult with your providers, what you say goes. You can also revoke or change your living will at any time, as long as you have the capacity to execute legal documents.
What Happens if You Don’t Have a Living Will?
If you don’t have a living will but you do have a healthcare power of attorney, the person you gave decision-making power will make those decisions for you. If you have neither a living will nor a healthcare power of attorney, your medical providers will look to your closest relative. If you’re married, that means your spouse.
If you’re not married, Arizona law sets forth a hierarchy of decision-makers. Adult children come next, but that can be complicated. Healthcare providers are directed to “seek the consent of a majority of adult children who are reasonably available for consultation.” This can obviously create a difficult situation if there are two adult children and they disagree, or a disagreement breaks out among several adult children. Others in the hierarchy include parents, domestic partners, siblings, and, if none of those is available, a “close friend.”
Healthcare Powers of Attorney
A power of attorney is a legal document that grants someone else the power to act on your behalf. A healthcare power of attorney empowers your chosen proxy to make medical decisions on your behalf if you are unable to make them yourself.
In contrast to the advance directive, a healthcare power of attorney may come into play any time you are temporarily unable to talk with doctors and tell them what you want. For instance, if you’re in a car accident and suffer moderate injuries, your living will generally won’t be relevant. But, if you hit your head on the windshield and suffered a serious concussion, you may be unconscious or simply unable to communicate clearly when someone has to decide whether to perform surgery on your badly broken arm or remove your damaged spleen.
How Do Living Wills and Healthcare Proxies Work Together?
If you have a living will and no healthcare power of attorney, your providers will follow the instructions in your advance directive, but turn to your spouse, adult children, or other person with legal decision-making power for instructions on any issues not covered in your living will. If you have a healthcare power of attorney and no living will, the person you have designated to make your medical decisions for you will also make those life-and-death decisions that could have been addressed in a living will.
The ideal situation is to have both. If you’ve made your wishes known in a valid advance directive, the person who holds your healthcare power of attorney does not have the authority to overrule your wishes. However, they will be consulted for any decisions that aren’t covered in your living will.
Choosing a Healthcare Proxy
By default, the state grants medical decision-making power to your closest relatives. But, the person who is closest to you may or may not be the best person to entrust with your healthcare decisions. In choosing a healthcare proxy, one key consideration is whether you believe the person you’re choosing will take the time to understand what you want and act accordingly, rather than substituting their own judgment for yours. You’ll also want to take practical factors into consideration, such as whether the person you’re considering will be available to consult with your medical providers as needed. And, you may need to take family dynamics into account.
You are best qualified to know who in your life is most familiar with your wishes, most likely to honor those wishes, most likely to be available to take an active role in your care and best prepared to stand up to other family members if they disagree with what your healthcare proxy believes you would have wanted. Just make sure you take those variables into account, rather than defaulting to your spouse because they’re closest or your eldest child simply because they’re oldest or your best friend because you love them. Healthcare proxy is an important job, and you want to make sure it will be carried out the way you intend.
Talk to a Healthcare Planning Attorney Today
Unfortunately, none of us knows when we might need a living will or a healthcare representative to make decisions for us. Every adult should have these documents, although we all hope not to need them for many years, if ever.
The attorneys at Lincoln & Wenk understand how important it is for you to have these protections in place. We also know it can be uncomfortable to think through end of life issues, and difficult to decide who to place your trust in when it comes to medical decision-making. We’re here to help you every step of the way, so you and your family can be confident your wishes will be carried out if you aren’t able to speak up for yourself.
To learn more about how we can help, call 623-294-2464 right now, or fill out the contact form on this site.