Powers of Attorney and Living Wills: Which is Right for You?

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As medical technology advances and life expectancies increase, more and more families have to face difficult end-of-life issues. To spare their loved ones the prospect of having to make hard decisions — and to ensure that their own wishes are carried out — many people are turning to living wills or powers of attorney.

These documents can help signers enforce their wishes or empower the person they trust the most to make decisions for them. But do these documents serve the same purpose? Which one is appropriate for what kind of situation? To find out, let's examine the purpose of these documents in greater detail.

Living Wills

A living will is sometimes called an advance medical directive. Living wills are essentially instructions to the medical staff of a hospital or care unit regarding medical treatment for the signer should he or she become incapacitated or unable to direct their own medical care.

Many people use living wills to outline their instructions on the use of life support. In fact, living wills originally became popular in response to famous cases in which a person remained on life support in a persistent vegetative state while their family members battled over their fate in court. Some who sign living wills do so to make sure that no extraordinary measures will be taken to extend their lives if they are in a coma with no hope of recovering. Others sign them so that loved ones will know what their wishes are if they are no longer capable of expressing them.

Powers of attorney

Although they can also address health care decisions, a power of attorney serves a very different purpose than a living will. The major difference between the two is that a living will is directed to a patient's medical team. Whereas, a power of attorney is a document that gives a trusted individual the authority to make decisions of the signer's behalf. This designated individual is called the "attorney-in-fact."

Powers of attorney may be used to designate powers to the attorney in fact for a variety of different purposes, including empowering them to make financial decisions, buy or sell property or control bank accounts during a period of incapacity.

Which document should you use?

Your decision about which document to use depends on what you want to accomplish. For example, if your only goal is to clarify your wishes about end-of-life issues and associated medical treatment, consider a living will. However, if you also want to make sure your affairs are handled by someone you trust, maybe a power of attorney is the way to go. This is especially important if you would prefer someone who is not your legal next of kin to handle your affairs.

None of us like to imagine being a position where we can't make our own decisions, but it is best to be prepared for all situations, and a little advance planning today can make things easier for you and your loved ones tomorrow.