How do health care instructions and powers of attorney differ?

Important estate plan elements, people can express their wishes about medical treatments and who makes decisions for them through advance directives.

In some cases, people in California who suffer from illnesses that will someday incapacitate them have time to plan for that eventuality. For others, however, such debilitating conditions or injuries may occur unexpectedly. Whether preparing for the inevitable or the unanticipated, people may use advance health care directives, such as individual health care instructions and health care powers of attorney, so their family members are not left to guess what they would want and ensure they have the quality of life they are comfortable with. While they may include both of these legal documents in their estate plans, it is important for them to understand the distinct differences between the two.

Individual health care instructions

In life-and-death situations, important decisions may need to be made about the type of care patients receive. This may include deciding whether to perform certain surgical procedures, administer specific medications, or to provide cardiopulmonary resuscitation should people stop breathing or their hearts stop beating. If they are unconscious or otherwise unable to express themselves, people may not be able to indicate their desire to receive or not to receive certain treatments or ensure that their wishes are carried out.

Individual health care instructions are an estate planning tool that allows people to indicate their medical care preferences. Through these legal documents, they can stipulate any treatments they do or do not want. Further, they may specify if they want to be at home, in the hospital or in a nursing home when they are dying, and whether they want to be organ donors after their deaths.

Health care powers of attorney

There is no way to predict all the medical decisions that might pop up along the way. Should people be unable to speak for themselves and their individual health care instructions not cover an issue, their families and health care teams may be unsure how to proceed. This is where it may be important for them to also have a health care power of attorney in place, specifying someone to make decisions on their behalf.

The agents who people name in their powers of attorney for health care can make nearly all medical-related decisions for them. Since their authority is not limited to life sustaining treatments, people should choose someone for this role who they trust to act in accordance with their desires.

Seeking legal assistance

Whether they are in good health or they suffer from a serious medical ailment, it is important for people of all ages in California to establish estate plans that include advance care directives. With the options available, determining how to best ensure their wishes are followed if they cannot speak for themselves may be a daunting task for some. Therefore, those who need help setting up a new plan or updating an existing one may benefit from working with a lawyer. A legal representative may help them determine which options are best suited for their needs, as well as guide them through the process of drawing up the appropriate legal documents.