Advance directives, including powers of attorney and health care proxies, are legal documents that allow you to choose individuals to make medical and financial decisions on your behalf in the event that you become incapacitated and unable to make these decisions yourself. It is important to consider these choices while you are still able to, as they give you control over your care and finances in the future.

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Whether you are elderly or young, incapacity and the inability to make financial or medical decisions can occur unexpectedly. For example, incapacity can happen if you become unconscious as a result of an accident; you develop an illness which renders you comatose; or you are under general anesthesia for a surgical procedure and something unexpected occurs. A will addresses how your assets are distributed after your death, but it does not address issues that may arise if you become incapacitated. Therefore, in addition to a will, a basic estate plan should consist of certain advance directives such as a Power of Attorney, Living Will, and Health Care Proxy.

What is a Power of Attorney?

In New York State, a Durable Power of Attorney gives a person you designate (your agent) the legal authority to act on your behalf. This allows someone to manage your financial affairs if you become incapacitated. Selecting a person to serve as your agent is an important decision. The person you select should be someone you trust, as they can have significant control over your financial resources. In the event you become incapacitated and do not have a Power of Attorney, the court may have to appoint a guardian to make financial decisions on your behalf.

What is a Living Will?

In New York State, a living will is a document that states your decision about life support. It outlines your wishes as to whether life support should or should not continue in the event you are unable to communicate your wishes to medical professionals due to terminal illness, irreversible coma or being in a persistent vegetative state. Without a living will, your family and medical professionals are left to make the decision about whether, and to what extent life support measures should be sustained for you. The decision they make could be contrary to your wishes.

What is a Health Care Proxy?

A living will only addresses the issue of life support continuation. However, a New York State health care proxy is a document that allows you to express your desires regarding other aspects of your health care and appoint someone (called an agent) to carry out these wishes when you are incapacitated. The agent you appoint has authority to make medical decisions on your behalf if you are unable to do so yourself. A health care proxy does not permit your agent to make medical decisions if you are conscious and capable of making decisions on your own. A health care proxy only allows your agent to make health care decisions when you are incapacitated.

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