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Most people have heard of an “advance directive”, but many do not know what one is.  An advance directive is a document you sign, when you are competent, that states your preference regarding your medical care.  Advanced directives go by many names:  Healthcare Surrogate Designation, Healthcare Power of Attorney, Medical Power of Attorney, Medical Directive, Healthcare Proxy, Living Will…  When you are unable to make decisions your advance directive allows you to voice your preferences.  Your friends, family and health care providers are to follow the directions you give in your advance directive.

These documents allow you to designate a trusted family member or friend to make healthcare decisions for you when you are unable to do so, authorize someone to have access to your medical records, and specify what kind of treatment you want at the end of your life.  You can even direct donations of your organs through some advance directives.

Different advance directive documents have different uses.  For instance, a Living Will allows you to decline life prolonging procedures when you are at the end of you life.  It can also allow you to state under what circumstances you might want treatment.  A Healthcare Surrogate Designation allows you to appoint someone to make medical decisions when you are unable to do so.  In some states, if you have not appointed someone to make medical decisions for you, state laws designate a Healthcare Proxy to make those decisions when you are unable to do so.

Often people believe it is too early for them to sign health care advance directives.  When they realize how important those directives are, it is often too late.  Advance directives must be signed when an individual is competent.  They should be shared with friends, family and health care providers.  This ensures that everyone who may be involved in your care understands your wishes and knows what decisions you would make.

April 16, 2016 is National Healthcare Decisions Day.  It is a day dedicated to getting everyone thinking about their health care decisions and advance directives. It is a great time to talk to your friends and family about your wishes.  It is an ideal time to tell your family who you would like making your health care decisions when you cannot. If you do not have an advance directive, it is an excellent time sign one.  It is also the perfect time to review your current health care decision documents to see if they state your current wishes or need to be changed.

Advance directives are available through a variety of sources, including your estate planning or elder law attorney.  You can get an advance directive from a trusted organization, attorney or your health care provider.  Be sure your advance directive is properly signed, witnessed, and otherwise complies with your state’s laws.  A common advanced directive that meets the legal requirements in most states is the Five Wishes document available through Aging with Dignity.