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  • Writer's pictureArwen Rasmussen

Advance Directives: What They Are and Why You Need Them

By Polly Shoemaker, Managing Attorney, Wisconsin Guardianship Support Center

Who will make decisions for you if you’re unable to communicate for yourself? What do you want for end-of-life care? How will you make sure bills are paid if you’re in the hospital or away from home? Who do you want to manage funeral/burial decisions?

For all adults, it is vital to have a few key documents taken care of, so you and your family know what to do if you’re unable to make your own decisions. Taking the time to put your wishes in writing will make decision-making easier in a crisis. Wisconsin provides several ways to do this: through power of attorney documents for health care and finances, through a living will, and through an authorization for final disposition.

Wisconsin splits power of attorney authority into two different areas: health care decisions and financial decisions. Through a power of attorney, you can choose someone (called an agent) to act on your behalf. You can select the same person as your agent for both health care and finances, or you can choose different people. You can also name alternates.

Why should you should have POA documents? Here are just a few reasons:

  • Wisconsin isn’t a next-of-kin state, meaning your family can’t make decisions for you.

  • You have the power to decide what you want and make your loved ones aware of your wishes.

  • A health care power of attorney typically only becomes effective if you are unable to make your own decisions or express your wishes. That means that unless you become incapacitated, you can still decide for yourself. A financial power of attorney may become effective immediately or only on incapacity – that’s up to you.

  • The person you choose only has the authority you give them. They must follow your wishes as long as you make them known.

  • If you don’t have advance directives and you are unable to communicate for yourself, it can be very stressful on you and your loved ones. Because no one else can make decisions for you, your family may have to turn to the courts to grant them guardianship over you.

For a health care POA be valid in Wisconsin, you must be over 18 and of sound mind when you sign it. You must have two adults witness your signature. Your witnesses cannot be related to you, financially responsible for your care, or employed by your health care providers (unless they’re a social worker or a chaplain). Under state law, it takes two professionals to declare that you are incapacitated – two physicians, or a physician and an advanced practice clinician (a psychologist, a nurse practitioner, or a physician assistant).

For a financial power of attorney to be valid, it requires only that you sign it while of sound mind. It’s a good idea to have it notarized, however, as many financial institutions won’t accept it otherwise. Your financial power of attorney document can be effective immediately if you would like your agent to be able to help you with financial matters right away, or you can decide that it should only be effective when you are incapacitated, like your health care power of attorney. You can decide what financial matters you want help with – from paying bills to setting up a funeral/burial trust on your behalf.

In contrast to a health care POA, a living will is a directive to your health care providers that lays out your wishes in very specific situations – such as if you have a terminal condition or are in a persistent vegetative state. It doesn’t grant authority to anyone to make any other decisions for you, but it does allow you to make end-of-life wishes known, in case you don’t have anyone you want to make health care decisions or your providers can’t reach your health care agent.

Finally, Wisconsin also allows you to select a specific person to handle any funeral and/or burial or cremation planning for you through an authorization for final disposition. If you have any particular wishes, you can also make these known.

You can work with an attorney to prepare your directives, or you can do them yourself. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services provides standard forms for all of these directives; they are available online, or you can contact DHS with a self-addressed stamped envelope to request that they be mailed to you. Some health care systems can also help you with a health care power of attorney and/or living will. The Wisconsin Guardianship Support Center also provides do-it-yourself packets to walk you through the process; contact us at 1-855-409-9410 or to request one.

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