Living Will and Medical Power of Attorney: Honoring your Wishes

A living will and medical power of attorney can be two of the most crucial estate planning steps you take.


Theresa was only 26 years old when she went into cardiac arrest. She fell down in the hallway of her apartment and was rushed to the hospital. She quickly lapsed into a coma, and then spent 15 years of her life in what doctors diagnosed as an irreversible persistent vegetative state.

During that time she was unable to make any medical decisions. Her husband believed she did not want to continue in her current state and asked that her feeding tube be removed. Her parents disagreed. The legal battles that followed made history, and debates raged across the United States. By then, she was known to the world as Terri Schiavo, a name that conjures up images of legal battles and protests, instead of the life she lived.

There are two basic steps you can take in an attempt to prevent occurrences like these. No one likes thinking about the worst, let alone planning for it. But if Terri Schiavo’s situation has taught us anything, it’s that planning for such events not only saves your family a great deal of potential heartache, it puts the focus where it belongs: on your life and your wishes.

A living will is the first step to making sure you’re prepared in case of a medical emergency where you cannot make decisions for yourself. A living will simply spells out in detail exactly what kind of medical procedures you do or do not want performed on you. It also indicates whether or not you wish to be resuscitated and what your wishes are regarding a variety of other medical conditions, including comatose and a persistent vegetative state.

Whenever you make these decisions, it’s important to make sure you consult with your family to include them. That way, it’s completely clear what your wishes are. It’s also important to include a financial professional in your complete estate planning process, to make sure you aren’t missing crucial information or steps.

Your living will generally deals with a variety of medical procedures and can get as complex or as general as you wish. The more complex you make it, the more your wishes are known. This is crucial, so that it is clear what you want. A small amount of contemplation can go a long way to save your family and friends from heartache and legal battles over what may seem like minor medical details.

The second part of making sure your wishes are known is naming a medical power of attorney. A medical power of attorney goes by many names, including health care proxy and advance directive. They all describe the same basic principle. By naming a medical power of attorney, you’re simply designating someone to act as the sole decision maker in your absence. Most frequently, a spouse is named to this position, although it’s usually wise to name someone else in reserve in case your spouse is incapacitated as well.

Drafting a living will and appointing a medical power of attorney are only two of the many ways to be prepared. Sitting down and preparing a complete estate plan with a financial professional and an estate planning attorney, is the only way you’re more likely to have your wishes honored from all sides, both financial and medical.