When old age, degenerative illness or a sudden catastrophic injury leaves an individual unable to make difficult health care decisions for themselves, family members and medical staff may face overwhelming moral and financial dilemmas about what types of life-sustaining procedures to attempt.

While contemplating potential end-of-life decisions is hardly easy, any estate plan should include documents that make their health care preferences clear to both loved ones and health care providers should they become incapacitated.

Living wills

In Colorado, a living will is also known as a “Declaration as to Medical or Surgical Treatment.” This essential medical document ensures that an individual’s doctor understands what kinds of life-sustaining procedures a patient with a terminal condition is willing to undergo if he or she is unable to communicate clearly.

A living will may include directions for the withholding or administration of a range of medical procedures that serve only to prolong a patient’s death, including surgery, defibrillation, medications, tube feeding and cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Medical powers of attorney

While a living will is important, it may not be enough when health care issues are more nuanced. A medical power of attorney allows an individual to appoint a trusted family member or friend to make decisions on his or her behalf.

Unlike a living will, medical power of attorney grants an agent the authority to make medical decisions even if an individual is not terminally ill or in a persistent vegetative state. However, the agent must respect the terms of a living will if there is one.

A medical power of attorney may also include a statement that permits medical professionals to release information to an appointed health care agent, regardless of incapacitation.

Essential documents at any age

While it is obviously important for those with progressive illnesses or approaching old age to prepare for a potential end-of-life situation, it is never too early to plan for the unexpected. Establishing a living will and/or a medical power of attorney may help to spare loved ones from making an agonizing decision on their own.