No estate plan is complete without an advance directive

When many people think about estate planning, they think that it primarily involves deciding how one's assets should be distributed after death. Although that is an important part of estate planning, it is certainly not the entire picture. In order to have a comprehensive estate plan, it is important to look past wills and trusts and focus on what happens if you ever become incapacitated due to an illness or injury.

In New Jersey, documents that address this possibility are called advance directives. Advance directives typically are not just a single document, but are at least two separate documents that compliment each other. Together, they make provisions concerning your care should you ever become incapacitated or unable to communicate your healthcare wishes.

Instruction directive

One document that is part of an advance directive is an instruction directive. This document is also commonly called a living will. An instruction directive works by telling your doctor and family which scenarios that you would like life-sustaining treatment (e.g. life support or CPR) should you become unable to make your own decisions.

In addition to specifying your preferences regarding live-sustaining treatments, an instruction directive also gives you the opportunity to describe your general beliefs or values regarding treatment. Your doctor or family can use this to help them make decisions in situations that your instruction directive does not specifically cover. Instruction directives make the healthcare decision process much easier on your family, because they do not have to guess what you would have wanted.

Proxy directives

Proxy directives are another important component of an advance directive. This document is also called a healthcare power of attorney. Proxy directives allow you to choose someone you trust to make healthcare decisions on your behalf, should you become incapacitated.

Proxy directives become effective as soon as you become unable to make your own healthcare decisions because of an accident or medical condition. The person you choose to make your decisions is called a healthcare representative. Your healthcare representative is empowered to make the same healthcare-related decisions on your behalf as you would have had to make if you were not incapacitated.

If you also have an instruction directive, the law requires your healthcare representative to follow your wishes. However, should a situation arise that is not covered by your instruction directive, your healthcare representative must make a decision that he or she thinks would be in your best interest.

Consult an attorney

Making your healthcare wishes known can save your family the grief and stress of making these decisions known. If you have not already done so, consult with an experienced estate planning attorney. An attorney can ensure that your estate plan covers every contingency of your medical treatment. In addition to the healthcare aspect, an attorney can also assist you with drafting a power of attorney to appoint someone you trust to look after your financial affairs, should you become unable to act for yourself.