As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the country, doctors across the nation are joining lawyers in urging Americans to create the proper estate planning documents so medical providers can better coordinate their care should they become hospitalized with the virus. The most critical planning tool for this purpose is an advance health care directive, which is a medical power of attorney combined with a living will. An advance health care directive describes your wishes for medical treatment and end of life care in the event you’re unable to express your own wishes. In light of COVID-19, even those who have already created these documents should revisit them to ensure they are up-to-date and address specific scenarios related to the coronavirus.
While all adults over age 18 should put these documents in place as soon as possible, if you are over age 60 or have a chronic underlying health condition, the need is particularly urgent.
The medical power of attorney section of an advance health care directive allows you to name a person, known as your “agent,” to make health care decisions for you if you’re incapacitated and unable to make those decisions yourself. For example, if you are hospitalized with COVID-19 and need to be placed in a medically induced coma, this person would have the legal authority to advise doctors about your subsequent medical care.
If you become incapacitated without an advance health care directive, physicians will generally look to someone in your family to make these decisions for you. If no family can be located, they may ask the court to appoint a legal guardian to be the decision-maker. In either case, the person given this responsibility could be someone you’d never want to have power over such life or death decisions — and that’s why having an advance health care directive is so important.
While the medical power of attorney section of an advance health care directive names who can make health care decisions in the event of your incapacity, the living will section explains how your care should be handled, particularly at the end of life. For example, if you should become seriously ill and unable to manage your own treatment, a living will can guide your agent to make these medical decisions on your behalf. These decisions could include if and when you want life support removed, whether you would want hydration and nutrition, and even what kind of food you want and who can visit you. To ensure your medical treatment is handled in exactly the way you want and prevent your family from undergoing needless stress and conflict during an already trying time, it’s vital that you document such wishes in an advance health care directive.
Keep your directive updated
Even if you’ve already created an advanced health care directive, now is the perfect time to review it to ensure it still matches your wishes and circumstances. For instance, is the agent named still the individual you’d want to make these decisions? Has your health changed in ways that might affect your instructions? Are your values and wishes regarding end of life still the same?
What’s more, whether you are creating a new document or updating your old one, you should keep COVID-19 in mind. The highly contagious and life-threatening nature of the coronavirus is something medical providers have never dealt with before, and it has strained our nation’s healthcare system to the breaking point.
In light of COVID-19, there are a few unique circumstances you need to be aware of when drafting these documents to ensure all of the potential scenarios related to the coronavirus and its treatment have been properly addressed.
1. Don’t do it yourself: While you’ll find a wide selection of generic, advance directive documents online, you shouldn’t trust these do-it-yourself forms to adequately address such critical decisions. This is especially true during the ongoing pandemic when doctors are constantly tasked with making highly difficult and uncertain decisions for patients suffering from this deadly new virus. When it comes to your medical treatment and end of life care, you have unique needs and wishes that just can’t be anticipated by fill-in-the-blank documents.
2. Open lines of communication: Because COVID-19 is so contagious, family members of those who’ve contracted the virus are often not allowed to accompany them to the hospital. This means your agent likely won’t be there in person to make your treatment decisions. While most advance directives give your agent broad authority to communicate with your medical providers, the documents may not explicitly authorize certain types of remote communication. To remedy this, you may want to consider adding language to your directives expressly authorizing your agent to give directions by phone, Zoom, email, Skype, FaceTime, and other methods. To facilitate this communication, you should bring copies of your directives with you to the hospital to give your doctors, and ensure your agent (and any alternate agents named) have updated copies on-hand as well.
In part two of this series, we’ll continue with the critical need for advanced directives in the age of COVID-19.
This article is a service of the Law Office of Keoni Souza, LLC, an estate planning law firm in Honolulu, Hawaii. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That is why we offer a strategic planning session, during which you will get more financially organized than you have ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by contacting our office today to schedule a planning session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.
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