Does Your Family Know Your Wishes?
Studies show that only about 30 percent of adults have completed their advance directives — legal documents that convey end-of-life decisions.
And yet if a crisis occurs that leaves us incapacitated, most of us will wish we’d taken the time to weigh our options while we were able. So why do we hesitate?
Maybe you are fit and healthy, and see no reason to address these issues yet. Maybe you equate these documents with a directive to "pull the plug," even though you can ask for every medical treatment possible. Or, you may not be ready to accept loss of autonomy.
"Choosing someone to speak for you when you cannot is not about giving up control," says Shannon Callin, program coordinator of Group Health's Your Life, Your Choices program, which offers classes to help you prepare these documents and discuss them with your loved ones. “It’s all about having control over your life — right up to the end."
Family members, though, often aren’t ready for a frank discussion. “When we sat down with our children, they said, ‘We don’t want to talk about that!’” says Group Health member Bob Hauck, from Seattle. “And I told them, ‘Well, we’re all going to go someday, and this conversation will make it easier for everyone.’” Plus, he says, preparing the documents eased his mind.
Kurt Seiffert from Kirkland, agrees. “Not knowing what you want when a crisis occurs can rip a family apart when members disagree on what’s best for you,” he says.
Your medical advance directives aren’t the only documents to prepare and share. It’s also important for your family and heirs to know about your current will, how you wish your assets to be distributed, and if you’ve named an executor for your estate. Documentation for financial investments, insurance, bank accounts, and more should be readily accessible and up-to-date. Otherwise, your family may spend many days trying to uncover this information, and your estate could be tied up in probate for a long time.
“Be sure to instruct your children or family about where to find critical documents,” advises Seiffert, “so they know what to do when the time comes.”
Plan Ahead by Completing These Documents
Advance directives. You do not need a lawyer to complete a durable power of attorney for health care or living will, and you can make changes at any time. In Washington state, you don’t need to have them notarized, but it’s recommended, especially if you travel. Download advance directives or contact the Group Health Resource Line to have forms mailed to you.
It can also be helpful to attend a Your Life, Your Choices workshop.
Durable power of attorney for health care. Names a person or persons to make health care decisions based on your preferences if you aren’t able to do so yourself. Requires only your signature.
Living will (directive to physicians). Tells your doctors or others providing your health care when you want them to stop life-sustaining medical treatment and let you die. States whether you wish to receive artificial nutrition and hydration if you’re terminally ill or permanently unconscious.
Needs to be signed by two witnesses. You can attach an addendum with additional directives.
Physician orders for life-sustaining treatment (POLST). Translates your medical wishes into clear physician orders, which is critical if you’re seriously ill or frail and can’t speak for yourself. When health professionals are uncertain of your wishes, they default to treatment. This document will be honored by 911 responders. Signed by you and your doctor.
Original will. Many people consult with a lawyer to draw up this document, which dictates who will inherit your assets. You may also want to ask whether a living trust is appropriate.
Durable power of attorney for finances. Appoints a person or institution to handle your financial affairs if you are incapable of doing so.
Letter of instruction, or intent. Although this form is not legally binding, it is critical because it includes a list of assets and those who handle them, passwords, safe deposit box keys, property titles and deeds, life insurance policies, Social Security number, birth certificate, marriage certificate, funeral arrangements, and more.