When and why you need an Advance Health Directive

If you’ve ever been admitted to a hospital, you’ve likely been asked the question “Do you have an advance health care directive?” (It’s possible one or two of those words were missing: “advance directive” or “health care directive” are common ways to shorten it). If your first response was a confused look, this article may help clear things up.
An advance health care directive is a document that tells doctors who to talk to if their patient is unable to communicate with them (for example, if the patient is in a coma or has dementia). This designated person (otherwise known as “the agent”) can make medical decisions on the patient’s behalf, so the doctors don’t have to guess about what the patient wants.

An advance directive usually will also include directions to the agent, so the agent is not left guessing about what the patient wants either. The most common direction is whether or not the person wants to be on life support (a.k.a. the infamous “Do Not Resuscitate” Order). Other common directions include whether the patient wants pain medication (the vast majority of my clients say yes), permission (or denial) to donate organs, and even authorization to conduct an autopsy.

Many people don’t realize that the agent under the advance directive is also the person designated by law to dispose of the patient’s remains after the patient dies. The agent is the first person named in the statute, even before a surviving spouse or child. While directions on where and how to dispose of the patient’s remains can be found in the patient’s will or the advance directive, it makes more sense to have the directions in the advance directive, as the agent will have an easier time accessing it.

Of all the documents in an estate plan, this is quite possibly the most important, as your agent literally has the power to make life-ending decisions about your care. Take the case of Terry Schiavo a couple of decades ago: Terry was in a vegetative state, and the doctors asserted that she would never regain consciousness. Terry’s husband wanted to remove her feeding tube and end her life, but her family was vehemently opposed. They took the matter to court, and the battle raged for ten years before the courts finally ruled that Terry’s husband was the person with authority to make health care decisions, including the decision to end her life. Now, Terry did not have a health care directive, so there’s no way to know what she would have wanted to happen. Had she taken the time to create one, it could have saved everyone a great deal of time, money and heartache.

So that’s the advance health care directive in a nutshell. If you’d like to learn more about them, or would like to create one for yourself, please contact me at kaway@kawaylaw.com.

Kelley Way was born and raised in Walnut Creek, California. She graduated from UC Davis with a B.A. in English, followed by a Juris Doctorate. Kelley is a member of the California Bar, and an aspiring writer of young adult fantasy novels.