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May 21, 2019

3 Myths About Advance Directives

Advance directives are legal documents detailing your wishes about end-of-life care. They provide clarity about these issues to friends, family members, and medical professionals if you become too ill or hurt to express them.

A living will is an example of an advance directive, and it allows you to express your wishes about being fed by a tube, for example, or the use of breathing machines, or whether you’d like to be resuscitated if your heart ceased beating or you stopped breathing. A durable healthcare power of attorney allows you to name who should make a medical decision on your behalf if you can’t discuss issues yourself.

There are, not surprisingly, plenty of myths about advance care planning, and this post will myth-bust three of them.

Myth #1: Only an attorney can draw up advance directives

The Institute on Aging refutes this belief. Anyone who is mentally competent can fill out this document, although it can definitely help to have someone to discuss issues with, and it needs properly witnessed. Specifics about the advance care planning documents can differ by state.

Myth #2: Signing advance directives means that family and friends can make decisions for you now

Not true! The person you name in your documents will become empowered to carry out your wishes if a situation arises where you cannot make your own health care decisions. Note that you can also name alternative choices in case your designee can’t or isn’t willing to take on this responsibility.

A related myth states that simply deferring healthcare decision-making powers to a loved one will accomplish what advance directives would do. This is also not true. These documents put you in the driver’s seat, allowing you to state what medical decision you’d like to be made. This not the same as giving carte blanche to family and friends.

Myth #3: It’s all under control!

The American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys published a blog post that lists six myths about advance care planning, but they are really more like six variations on the same theme. In this post, it’s assumed that you’ve already got your advanced directives signed, everything is covered.

For example, you might assume that your family will make sure the hospital gets a copy. Well, maybe. Life will probably be pretty hectic if these documents are needed. Another myth variety is that family and friends can always run back home to retrieve the healthcare power of attorney, and so forth. But if time is of the essence, that simply may not be good enough. Are you sure they know where you keep these documents?

Here’s a surprising twist on this myth: You might assume that because you’d given copies to the hospital in the past, that’s good enough. But your advance directive might be difficult for them to find, even with electronic medical records. That’s because most electronic medical records don’t have a designated place to store advance directive documents. Or, your documents may be difficult to find because your hospital might use multiple electronic records systems that don’t sync. The hospital probably won’t be willing to pull your documents off a USB drive because of the risk of catching an online virus — and the fact that your attorney has copies might not be sufficient during a middle-of-the-night emergency.

What to Do with Advance Directives

Harvard Health Publishing suggests that you give copies of your living will and durable power of attorney for healthcare to:

  • the person you named as your agent, and any alternates
  • your doctor
  • your hospital

Keep originals in a safe spot in your house and let your family and friends — including your agents — know where they can be found. A hospital might request the originals. You can also keep a card in your purse or wallet that lists your healthcare agents’ name and contact information, and where originals and copies can be found.

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