Advance Directives for Medical Decisions

What if an illness or an accident leaves you in a coma? Would you want to have your life prolonged by any means necessary, or would you want to have some treatments withheld to allow a natural death? An advance directive allows you to give instructions to your health care providers and your family on these topics. You can give them instructions about the types of treatments you want or don’t want to receive if you become incapacitated.

What can happen if there are no instructions, in writing? Family emotions and differences of opinion can get in the way of making a choice that reflects your true wishes. These differences of opinion can cause much strife in an already difficult time. To make matters worse, many such conflicts end up being decided by the courts, which may receive conflicting information from family members. Courts try to determine what your wishes are, based on testimony from family.

The term “advance directive” can describe a variety of documents. Living Will and Health Care Power of Attorney documents are types of advance directives. If you have questions, contact an attorney who is familiar with state statutes regarding advance directives. An attorney can help you formulate advance directives. It is a simple process, and can prevent much heartache and family conflict. It can ensure that your wishes are followed should you become incapacitated.


A Living Will allows you to state whether you want your life prolonged if you suffer from a terminal illness or if you are deemed to be permanently unconscious. In general, a Living Will indicates whether you want certain treatments withheld or withdrawn if they are only prolonging the dying process or if there is no hope of recovery. Living Wills only go into effect if you are no longer able to make your own health care decisions. A Living Will lets your physician and your family know your specific wishes concerning certain medical procedures.


A Health Care Power of Attorney (HCPOA) allows you to name someone (an Agent) to make health care decisions for you if you are unable. The HCPOA can cover any health care decision, even if you are not terminally ill or permanently unconscious. A HCPOA can apply in cases of temporary unconsciousness or in case of diseases like Alzheimer’s that affect decision making. As with the Living Will, a HCPOA generally only goes into effect when you are no longer able to make your own health care decisions. Unless you state otherwise in your directive, your Agent generally has the same authority to make decisions about your health care as you would. Since this person will be acting on your behalf if you become unconscious or unable to make health care decisions, this should obviously be someone you know and trust thoroughly. You can limit your Agent’s authority if you choose to do so. For example, you could specify that your Agent will not have authority to override your desire not to be put on life support equipment.

Contact your attorney if you have questions, need advice, or would like to have advance directives prepared. Advance directives can prevent many problems for close family members. They are simple and inexpensive to have prepared. They can give you and your family great peace of mind to know that your wishes regarding your health care choices are clear and set forth in writing, should you become incapacitated.

WITH A SATELLITE OFFICE NOW IN PANGUITCH. Jeffery J. McKenna is a local attorney serving clients in Utah, Nevada, and Arizona. He is a shareholder at the law firm of Barney McKenna and Olmstead. He is a founding member and former President of the Southern Utah Estate Planning Council. If you have questions regarding this article or if you have a topic you wish to have addressed in this column, you can call 435 628-1711.

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