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Estate planning: Health care directives pattern state law

People may tend to confuse a health care proxy with a living will. They are two different legal instruments in estate planning that produce two distinctly separate outcomes. Each state, including Florida, will have statutory rules that define the requirements of each of these, but in general most states will achieve the same outcome with little real deviation.

Both of these tools deal with the issue of medical treatment and services for the individual who makes them out and signs them. That person, in the case of a health care proxy, designates someone else, usually a trusted relative or friend, to make medical decisions on his or her behalf if the person is incompetent or otherwise disqualified from being able to speak for oneself. Of course, this type of arrangement works best if the designated spokesperson and the maker of the instrument discuss the maker's intentions and medical preferences while the maker is fully competent and lucid.

The maker could also leave a letter of instructions to the designated health care proxy written when fully competent and mentally capable. This tool may be looked at as a health care power of attorney, which it is in several respects. A living will is different from the health care power of attorney. The living will expresses one's wishes for treatment and care during end-of-life care. Some persons do not want medical providers to extend their life artificially during a last illness, especially if certain physiological functions have ceased operating.

Thus, if the patient is brain-dead, the living will can tell the medical providers that at that point they should not attempt to prolong life because it would be a futile exercise. Other instructions can be given, and if desired, this may also be an appropriate instrument for reminding medical authorities that one is an organ donor. An experienced Florida estate planning attorney will prepare the documents specifically in line with state law and their legality will be therefore assured.

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