Living wills and health care powers of attorney for veterans

This article looks at advance directives, especially as they concern medical care for military veterans.

Talking about end-of-life care can be difficult, yet most people would like to decide for themselves the kind of care and treatment they receive. Advance directives, such as living wills and health care powers of attorney, allow individuals to make their own health care decisions in advance or appoint someone to make those decisions on their behalf. These advance directives are an important part of estate planning as they help ensure family members respect a loved one's wishes while also helping to avoid potentially painful disputes. For military veterans, especially those who are disabled, advance directives are especially important.

Living wills vs. powers of attorney

Advance directives refer to two important documents: living wills and powers of attorney. While many advance directive forms combine living wills and powers of attorney into one form, these are still two very different types of documents. A living will allows an individual to specify what type of medical care he or she will receive in certain situations. For example, it can specify that the individual not receive mechanical ventilation in order to prolong his or her life.

A power of attorney (or, to be more specific, a health care power of attorney) on the other hand appoints another individual to make medical decisions on a person's behalf. The appointed agent makes those decisions on the individual's behalf when that individual is no longer able to communicate his or her decisions himself, such as if they are in a vegetative state.

Veterans and advance directives

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has an advance directive form that combines a living will and a durable power of attorney. This form is accepted at all VA health care facilities and at most non-VA facilities as well (although rules on their enforceability may vary from state to state). The VA Advance Directive (Form 10-0137) also has the benefit of being more detailed than most other advance directives and covers potential medical scenarios that may not be covered in other advance directives or that are more likely to be encountered by disabled veterans .

However, while most advance directives will be followed by medical professionals, there are instances where a medical professional will have little choice but to violate an advance directive. Some advance directives, for example, may contain conflicting instructions, while others may include directions that are illegal. A doctor cannot provide care or treatment that violates the law, even if the patient includes directions for such care in an advance directive.

Getting legal help

To help avoid situations where one's wishes may not be followed by a medical professional, it is a good idea to fill out an advance directive with the assistance of an estate planning attorney. An attorney can help ensure that advance directives are comprehensive and legally enforceable, thus ensuring that their clients' wishes are respected and that painful family disputes over medical care are avoided.