If you become unable to direct your own medical care because of illness, an accident, or advanced age, the right legal documents are your lifeline. When you don't write down your wishes about the kinds of medical treatment you want and name someone you trust to oversee your care, these important matters can be placed in the hands of estranged family members, doctors, or sometimes even judges, who may know very little about what you would prefer.
There are two basic kinds of health care documents that everyone should make. First, you'll need a document naming a trusted person to direct your health care if you are unable to do so yourself. This document is commonly called a durable power of attorney for health care.
Second, you should make a document setting out the types of medical treatment you would or would not like to receive in certain situations. This document is often known as a living will.
In California, these two documents are combined into a single form called an advance health care directive.
In California, the person you name to make decisions for you is called your agent. Most people name a spouse, partner, relative, or close friend as their agent. Under California law, your agent may not be:
When choosing your agent, the most crucial criteria are trustworthiness and dependability. You might also want to choose someone you think will be good at asserting your health care wishes if others argue against them -- that is, someone who is persistent or calm under pressure.
While you need not name someone who lives in California, the person you name should at least be willing and able to travel to your bedside if necessary.
Your agent will begin to make health care decisions for you when you lack the capacity to do so. For more information, see Nolo's article Living Wills and Powers of Attorney for Health Care: How They Work.
You usually don't need a lawyer to prepare documents directing your health care. In fact, state governments have designed these forms for people to complete on their own by filling in the blanks. You can find the health care forms you need for California in Nolo's Quicken WillMaker & Trust software. The software includes detailed instructions for completing your documents and meets all California legal requirements.
For more on California estate planning issues, see our section on California Estate Planning.