No matter what your age or health status, you ought to have healthcare documents in place. That way, if you can’t make your own decisions about your healthcare, someone whom you trust can make the decisions for you. The tools we use for this are:
- a healthcare power of attorney;
- a living will; and
- an authorization for release of medical information (HIPAA Release).
If you are incapacitated, who will make decisions for you? In a healthcare power of attorney you can designate a healthcare agent (and alternates) to make healthcare decisions for you when you are unable to make them. The decisions may be life-threatening or not. They can run from setting a broken arm to deciding whether to hook you up to a ventilator.
In a living will you say what should happen if death is imminent and there’s nothing more that can reasonably be done. If you are in a hospital and your doctor determines that you are terminally ill with only a short period of time to live, you can clarify that you do not want to have procedures administered that serve only to prolong the dying process. You can clarify that what is most important to you is to maintain your dignity and to be comfortable. So, for instance, if giving you pain medication might shorten your life, that’s okay.
In 1997 the US Congress enacted the Healthcare Information Privacy and Portability Act, now fondly known as “HIPAA,” to protect the privacy of healthcare information. Like so much of what our lawmakers do, there are good parts of the law (but not as many as we hoped) and bad parts (which we didn’t see coming). Regardless, you need to deal with HIPAA in your estate planning. HIPAA limits who can know your healthcare information. Unless you have given your okay, your healthcare providers can’t share your private healthcare information-even with your family. So, for example, you have a heart attack. Your daughter immediately flies from the East Coast. When she arrives at your hospital bed, the nurse can’t tell her what’s going on unless there’s an authorization in your file. We recommend that all our clients prepare these documents. So should their kids over 18. Then, we recommend that you update your documents, at least every five years.