Before you get sick, it’s important that you put in writing the instructions for what kind of treatment you would want and who could make decisions for you if you could no longer communicate your wishes.

Many people assume that their family members would automatically be able to make decisions about medical treatments and life-sustaining measures if they were to become incapacitated. This is not always true.

Rules vary greatly from state to state, but in some cases, decisions are left up to doctors and institutions unless you have appointed someone as your legal representative. If the decision falls to family, your family members may not always agree on medical treatment issues. This could lead to disagreements or even court battles over appropriate treatment, especially when it comes to end-of-life issues.

These are some of the legal documents you can use to describe how you want medical and financial decisions made if you can’t make them yourself:

  1. Health care proxy: In some states, you may hear it called a durable power of attorney for health care, medical power of attorney, or appointment of a healthcare agent. This document allows you to name someone you trust as your proxy, or agent, to express your wishes and make health care decisions for you if you can’t do so because of a temporary or permanent illness or injury (also known as being incapacitated). Your health care proxy is allowed to make medical decisions on your behalf, ideally the same decisions that you would have made if capable. It’s important to communicate your wishes and treatment preferences to your health care proxy before falling ill, and to update them if anything changes.
    Note: The word proxy can be used to refer to the person or the legal document.

  3. Living will:This document usually has a more limited scope. It describes the type of care you’d like to receive in specific situations if you are incapacitated. For example, you may request to not be resuscitated if your illness or injury progresses to a certain stage, or ask that certain treatments not be used regardless of the situation (or even that all viable medical options are used as aggressively as possible). You may also hear a living will called a directive to physicians, health care declaration, or medical directive. It works best as a guide for your health care proxy and doctors to make sure your health care preferences and wishes are followed.
  4. Advance directives: This term is often used to refer to a health care proxy and living will. These are two separate documents, but it’s considered best practice to complete both. In many states, they are combined into one document.
  5. Power of attorney: A power of attorney is a legal document that lets another person (your agent or attorney) to make property, financial, and other legal decisions on your behalf. Your agent may play an important role in your health care, as he or she can pay for health care, choose health insurance policies for you, and appeal coverage denials. You may appoint the same person to be in charge of medical and financial decisions by giving them power of attorney and naming them as your health care proxy. However, to do so requires two separate documents.

Your doctors should make note of your advance directives in your medical record. Give these documents to the hospital upon each new admission. If you go to the hospital by ambulance, take these documents with you if you can.