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A living will: an important but often overlooked estate planning document
It is important that Pennsylvania residents consider including an advance health care declaration among their estate planning documents.

When most people think of estate planning, they think of preparing a document like a will or perhaps a trust. However, when considering their estate plan, many people fail to plan for the possibility that they may be unable to communicate with their doctors about the care that they wish to receive. It is therefore important that Pennsylvania residents consider including an advance health care declaration among their estate planningdocuments.

What is an advance health care declaration?

An advance health care declaration, also known as a living will, is a document that allows you to control whether or not artificial means (e.g. respirator) should be used to prolong your life should you become permanently unconscious, incompetent or have a terminal condition. The document works by telling your family and friends of your wishes and instructing your doctor and other health care professionals whether you would like them to take artificial measures to prolong your life in these circumstances.

In most cases, your doctor or health care provider must follow your wishes. If, for whatever reason, your doctor is unwilling or unable to comply with your wishes, he or she must make every reasonable effort to transfer you to another doctor or institution that will comply.

Who can make a declaration?

Almost any person can make an advance health care declaration. Under Pennsylvania law, any person who is of sound mind and at least 18 years old (or has graduated from high school or is married) can make and sign a declaration. The person making the declaration (the “declarant”) also can have someone sign it on his or her behalf. The declaration does not need to be notarized, but two adult witnesses must witness the declarant’s signature.

When does the declaration go into effect?

The advance health care declaration does not go into effect right away. It only becomes effective when your attending physician makes a diagnosis that declares that you are incompetent and either have a terminal condition or are in a permanent state of unconsciousness. Another physician must confirm this diagnosis in writing.

Can someone make treatment decisions on my behalf?

Although optional, Pennsylvania law allows you to name a surrogate (and a substitute surrogate) to make treatment decisions on your behalf should you become incompetent and either have a terminal condition or are permanently unconscious. This is the only time that the surrogate’s power to make medical decisions becomes effective. However, if you would like someone to make medical decisions on your behalf in other medical situations, you might want to consider making a health care power of attorney in addition to a declaration.

Consult an attorney

Besides allowing you to remain in control of your medical treatment, advance health care declarations make it easier for loved ones, as they do not have to guess what you would have wanted them to do. However, a declaration is just one piece of a complete estate plan. If you do not have a declaration or have questions about estate planning, consult an experienced estate planning attorney who can discuss your situation and inform you of your options.

Keywords: estate planning, advance directive, living will
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