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Understanding Advance Directives: What They Can and Cannot Dictate

Creating an estate plan is a way of taking control of your life insofar as that is possible. The estate planning attorneys at Surprenant & Beneski recognize the importance of self-empowerment in the estate planning process since they help clients throughout Southeastern Massachusetts, Cape Cod & the Islands secure their futures and protect their loved ones daily. One essential component of this self-empowerment is taking control of your health care, even if you become incapacitated and unable to speak. It is in this realm that Advance Directives are key.

What are Advance Directives?

Advance Directives, also known as Living Wills, are documents that allow individuals to outline their preferences for medical care if they become unable to make decisions for themselves at the end of their life. Issues addressed in Advance Directives include such things as whether, once doctors agree that you have only a short time to live, you want to be intubated, fed through a feeding tube, or put through any other “life-saving” procedures.

Who Can Create an Advance Directive and How?

Any competent adult can create an Advance Directive. The process involves drafting a document that specifies your healthcare preferences. It’s advisable to consult with one of our estate planning attorneys to ensure that the directive is clear and inclusive.

Massachusetts Does Not Legally Recognize Advance Directives

Many people are surprised to learn that Massachusetts is one of the very few states that does not recognize Advance Directives as legally binding. Nonetheless, our estate planning attorneys strongly advise that you have a signed copy of this document. 

Though Massachusetts law emphasizes the role of your Health Care Proxy over the Advance Directive, your written words will be your voice when ill health has silenced you, serving as a guide to your attending doctors, your Health Care Proxy, and even to close relatives who may disagree with your decisions. The fact that your Health Care Proxy has more legal power than your Advance Directive in your state underscores the importance of choosing a proxy who respects your values and desires.

Written Words Are No Substitute for Direct Communication

You must communicate with relevant parties what your wishes are when you create the document; surprising them during a health crisis is never a good idea. It’s also important to keep your Advance Directive updated and your loved ones informed of any changes. This communication minimizes confusion, ensures that your preferences are known, and prevents family conflicts. In addition, you should inform your loved ones of where you are keeping your Advance Directive so that they can locate it in the event it is needed.

Flexibility of Advance Directives:

It is important to remember that you have the right to alter your Advance Directive at any time. This flexibility ensures that your document always reflects your current wishes and medical preferences. You have every right to change your mind at any time.

Palliative Care Assurance:

Regardless of your directives regarding life-prolonging treatments, you are entitled to receive palliative care to manage pain and discomfort. It may be helpful to discuss this matter with your doctor to understand whether you are likely to feel hunger or thirst in your final days.

Limitations in Emergency Situations:

It is important to be aware that  Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) are obligated to provide life-saving treatment, regardless of your Advance Directive. In such cases, documents like Do-Not-Resuscitate (DNR) orders and Medical Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (MOLST) become relevant.

The Takeaway

Although not legally binding in Massachusetts, your Advance Directive is a fundamental part of your estate plan, offering you the peace of mind that comes from knowing your healthcare preferences will be honored. Get in touch with our team today to learn more.