The Importance of Legal Documents

Depending upon the state in which you reside, there are different legal documents to enable your healthcare choices to be carried out; the terms of the document are invoked only in the event you become incompetent to voice your own choices. These documents may be called living wills, healthcare proxies, or advance healthcare directives, but they essentially serve the same legal purpose. For cancer survivors, such a legal document is important because hospitals will typically take extraordinary steps to maintain life even if a person is brain dead (as a preemptive measure against a malpractice lawsuit in this litigious era).

If you are unable to express your own decisions about your medical treatment due to a stroke or other complication, having such a written directive enables a loved one to speak for you (and someone you trust who knows your health treatment wishes). In the absence of such a document, your closest living relative will be contacted to speak on your behalf—and that person may not know your wishes or be the one you want to make decisions about your life. Once the form is completed and signed by you and your designated “healthcare proxy” (probably your life-partner or spouse), a copy of the document should be given to your primary care physician to keep with your medical records.

In Massachusetts, it is not necessary for a lawyer to be involved in preparing the “healthcare proxy” or for it to be notarized. On the other hand, proof of completing this document is required before admission for surgery at a Massachusetts hospital. You will need to check the law regarding the requirements for this document for your own state of residence, but this is mostly available online. If you change your mind regarding your wishes and/or the person designated as your “healthcare proxy”, you can just destroy the old version of the form and fill out a new one.

You may also want to have a lawyer create a Durable Power of Attorney. Unlike the “healthcare proxy” form, this document gives—in the event of your incapacitation—your designated individual power over your financial affairs. This means that the individual can access your bank account, and pay your bills.

Obviously, it is an excellent idea to create a legal Will (with a named Executor) if you have been diagnosed with cancer. If you do not have a legal Will, your closest blood relative will inherit all your assets—and nobody else. In the case of leaving behind a spouse or domestic partner in your home after your death, that person could be asked to leave by a family member inheriting the property. Therefore, to protect your life partner or spouse, it is vital to have a legal document that states your wishes in terms of your assets and property. It is also an excellent idea to have a Will that specifies the percentage of your financial assets you wish to leave to each of your children (if you have children) and anybody else. That way, your offspring and friends are less likely to experience friction in determining their share of your estate—or to have to resort to probate court appeal (a lengthy process) to resolve the matter.