An Advance Health Care Directive, also known as a Living Will, is a legal document that declares your wishes regarding the use of life-sustaining treatment should you become incapacitated from a terminal illness or a persistent/permanent vegetative state (e.g. coma). It authorizes doctors to follow the instructions contained in the document once a determination of incapacity is made. It only becomes effective when you are permanently unconscious or terminally ill and unable to communicate your wishes regarding life-sustaining treatment. It generally only avoids treatment when it is determined that recovery is hopeless and any treatment would only prolong the dying process. Your doctor must first determine if your prognosis fits those criteria before it has any effect on medical decisions.

The execution of a proper Advance Health Care Directive is an important and thoughtful responsibility for you to take care of for your family. Because it contains written evidence of your wishes, it avoids any speculation and guilt that can occur when a person has not addressed his or her wishes in writing. The infamous litigation which occurred in the Terry Shiavo case in Florida could have been avoided had she signed an Advance Health Care Directive indicating what her wishes were. Instead, her husband and parents ended up litigating over what medical treatment was appropriate for her.

Because it is difficult to anticipate every medical condition you may face, it is often a good idea to designate an agent to act as a substitute healthcare decision-maker for you. A Health Care Proxy is a document whereby you designate a person (often a spouse or child) to make healthcare decisions on your behalf. In New Jersey, a Combined Health Care Directive is used whereby you set forth your medical directives and name a person to act on your behalf if it becomes necessary.

While Advance Health Care Directive Forms are commonly available and can be completed without the assistance of a lawyer, it is wise to have an experienced estate planning attorney review the document to make sure it is properly completed and accurately reflects your wishes. Whitlock Canter LLC has developed a comprehensive Advance Health Care Directive document which incorporates proper language to avoid the privacy laws contained in the Health Insurance Portability Accountability Act ("HIPAA") interfering with your ability to obtain necessary medical files from various doctors and hospitals on behalf of a loved one.

In New Jersey, all hospitals are required by law to ask you if you have an Advance Health Care Directive when you are admitted to a hospital.