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What is a living will in Washington state?

Many residents of Vancouver have heard the term "living will" without fully understanding its meaning. With the many advances in medical treatment that allow physicians to extend the life of patients who are suffering from severely disabling or potentially fatal illnesses and injuries, the medical and legal communities have recognized the need for legally enforceable agreements that allow persons other than the patient to make certain medical and financial decisions. Such a document is known as a "living will" but, in fact, a living will is really two documents.

The first is called a "durable power of attorney for health care." This document allows a patient who is not able to make informed health care decisions to designate another person, such as a spouse or adult child, to make such decisions. The person receiving such authority is known as a health care agent. The agent will have the power to consent to care and treatment and to the withdrawal of care and treatment.

The second part of a living will is the "health care directive." A health care directive has a single purpose: to inform medical providers that the person does not wish to have life extended by artificial means. If the patient has been diagnosed by his or her attending physician to be suffering from a terminal condition, and if further medical care would artificially prolong the dying process, the patient can sign a health care directive giving another person, such as a spouse or adult child, the power to order the withdrawal of care, allowing the patient to die naturally. Unlike a durable power of attorney, a health care directive is a direct statement by the patient about his or her wishes for end of life medical treatment.

Most health care practitioners and attorneys who deal with wills and estate plans will recommend the use of both a durable power of attorney and a health care directive. Anyone with questions about the legal implications of signing either document may wish to consider consulting an experienced estate planning attorney.