As our loved ones advance in age or dementia, it becomes increasingly important to establish procedures that will make dealing with health or medical issues much easier in the future.
In particular, there are four types of documents to consider creating for aging parents, grandparents and other loved ones: advance directives, physician orders for life-sustaining treatment, standard wills and living trusts.
Advance Directive: An advance directive is a legal document that provides guidance about what types of treatments your loved one may want to receive in the event of a medical emergency, and who they would like to make decisions on their behalf regarding medical treatment. This person is called a surrogate.
NOTE: Depending on where your loved one lives, an advance directive might instead be called a living will, health care power of attorney or something else.
Every adult should have an advance directive in place so that if something happens, the surrogate can ensure that the patient’s wishes are respected and carried out.
In Washington state, care providers like Take My Hand At-Home Care are required to ask whether patients have an advance directive.
NOTE: As with the rest of the documents on this list, it’s important to put an advance directive in a place where it can easily be found. Make sure your surrogate knows where it is, and have it added to your medical record, if possible.
Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment: This is another document we’re required to ask about at Take My Hand At-Home Care. Physician orders for life-sustaining treatment (POLST) forms are specific to each individual. In the event that your loved one has a medical emergency, this form describes the specific medical treatments he or she would like to receive. While all adults should have an advance directive, a POLST form only becomes necessary upon diagnosis of a serious illness or when health begins to deteriorate near the end of life.
NOTE: While an advance directive is a legal document, a POLST is a medical order. Only an advance directive can legally designate a surrogate to make healthcare decisions on behalf of a loved one.
Standard will: A will sets out instructions for how your parents or grandparents would like their assets distributed in the event of death. The will also designates the person who will be in charge of that. It’s a good idea to establish a will as soon as possible and then to review it once a year to ensure that it’s an accurate reflection of your loved one’s wishes. When a person dies with a will in place, the person’s estate goes through probate court to, among other things, determine the will’s validity, total up the assets and distribute those assets according to the will’s instructions. Without a will in place, that process gets a lot more complicated.
Living trust: A living trust places a person’s assets into a separate entity that allows for the avoidance of probate court. It explains who will manage that entity upon your loved one’s death and who will distribute its assets — and to whom and how much. A living trust can be more expensive to prepare than a standard will, but it can save the costs associated with probate court.
If you have any questions about what documents might be necessary in your family’s case, consult an attorney who specializes in elder law. There are a number of options in Bellingham, Lynden and throughout Whatcom County for lawyers who specialize in situations regarding the elderly.