Planning for the future: Who will make the decisions?

For most people, it's almost unthinkable. An accident you never saw coming. An illness that strikes like lightning. No one likes to imagine it, let alone plan for it, but things happen. There might come a day when you cannot make decisions for yourself. Then what would happen? You can leave your fate to chance. Or, through a bit of legal work now, you can take control. The first step is to determine which type of legal document is best for you- a living will or a medical power of attorney.

How does Illinois define the terms of a living will

If you are an Illinois resident over the age of 18, you to create a living will at any time. However, it only takes effect when a doctor states that you have a terminal illness or you are in a permanently unconscious state and your medical records confirm the diagnosis.

Through a living will, you get to define your end-of-life medical care, from the types of death-delaying procedures you do or do not want to the conditions under which you want those procedures to cease. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

§ Medical professionals acting under the terms of a living will are not allowed to withdraw food or water.

§ Your living will must be witnessed by two people, neither of whom can be your doctor.

§ To ensure that your living will is acted upon, your family and your doctor must know it exists. Better yet, give copies to the people who need to know your wishes and can be trusted to make sure they are carried out.

§ You can cancel your living will at any time, either by telling someone you want to cancel it or you can do so in writing. Putting it in writing is the more fool-proof option.

If you have both a power of attorney for health care and a living will, the person to whom you have given medical power of attorney will make your health care decisions unless he or she is unavailable or otherwise unable.

What is a medical power of attorney?

A medical power of attorney is generally much broader than a living will; it gives another person the power to make your health care decisions. You will be trusting this person with your life, so choose carefully. Although as a safeguard, the medical power of attorney document can contain preferences to guide the power of attorney's decision making. The document can even be drafted as to limit the power of the individual granted power of attorney. A medical power of attorney comes into effect when you become incapacitated. The power of attorney expires upon your death or when you terminate the power.

The person granted the power, the doctor and the hospital should all have copies of the medical power of attorney.

Which is best for me?

Your goals dictate which document is better for you, and whether or not you might benefit from other legal estate-planning tools. An estate planning attorney can help you create a plan in line with your vision for end-of-life care.

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