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Health care directives: An important part of your estate plan

A heart attack on the way to a second job, a stroke while checking Facebook in bed or a car crash that results in a coma, these traumatic events can come at almost any time. It is impossible to know the when, but it is possible to have a plan.

A neighbor was shocked into making lifestyle changes after suffering a heart attack at age 40. A healthy and active parent in her 70s was incapacitated by a blood clot while on a dinner cruise. These stories are reminders of the importance health care directives play in an estate plan. And how proper planning can ensure that bills get paid and avoid the need for a guardianship hearing.

What is a health care proxy?

This is the term used in New Hampshire to describe anyone who is able to make health care decisions on your behalf when you cannot. It could be a spouse or a child you have named in an advance directive (a health care agent).

When does it kick in?

This person’s authority starts when a medical professional certifies in writing that you no longer have capacity to make medical decisions. This might be a stroke that immediately affects the ability to communicate or a gradual loss of capacity through a progressive disease like Alzheimer’s or dementia. Authority ends when a person passes away.

Other parts of your estate plan like a will only take effect after death. Health care directives fill the gap and ensure you a say in who makes important medical treatment decisions after you cannot.

Decisions a health care agent may need to make

The health care agent is entitled to receive the same medical information that you would have received. This person can also access medical records and any other relevant information needed to make the following types of decisions:

  • Whether to seek a second opinion
  • Which direction to take with treatment
  • When to transfer to another health care facility or skilled nursing home
  • What life-sustaining efforts, if any, should be used

These are difficult decisions that must be made while under significant stress. The New Hampshire Bar Association has a resource for those appointed to the role.

Advance planning can lessen this burden by ensuring a loved one is able to get information needed right away. Financial power of attorney documents also allow for access to bank accounts to pay bills which can become necessary even with a short hospital stay.

The time to start the estate planning discussion is today. Everyone needs to have an estate plan and there is peace of mind that comes once it is finalized.