Legal Planning

It is important to think through and communicate to loved ones and health care providers what you want to happen if medical decisions have to be made and you can’t communicate your wishes (advance directives), you become incapacitated (guardianship), or when you die (wills).

Many people want to work with an attorney experienced with estate planning and elder law on these issues. Find an attorney.


A will is a legal document that outlines what happens to your property after you die. A will defines who is to get the property and in what amounts. A will can also, if necessary:

  • name a guardian for any minor children (or pets);
  • identify someone else to handle the property left after death on behalf of children or others; and/or
  • identify an "executor" to handle property and affairs from the time of death until an estate is settled.

Advance Directives

Advance directives put into writing the type of medical care, or decisions, you want made if you are no longer able to communicate them yourself. All adults should have advance directives - an accident or serious illness can happen suddenly. Few people like to talk about or think about these things. Not having this discussion or not having advance directives can place an even heavier burden on those you love if the unthinkable happens.

See the Consumer’s Tool Kit for Health Care Advance Planning from the American Bar Association to help you discover, clarify, and communicate what is important to you in the face of serious illness

Adult children, or others concerned about a friend or relative, need to know whether these documents exist and where they are kept. AARP has designed a form to help document where to locate important documents before a crisis occurs.

Several internet sites offer free or low cost standardized forms that can be used. Use an internet search engine to find what you are looking for.

Living Wills or Health Care Directive

A living will is a legal document that defines for health care professionals what type, if any, of medical treatments you want to prolong your life if an accident or undiagnosed life threatening illness occurs and you are unable to communicate your wishes. A living will only comes into effect when you are near death. All adults should have a living will.

Note: The DSHS publication, Your Legal Right To Make Decisions About Health Care and Advance Directives in Washington State (DSHS 22-015x) is no longer available.  There are many current publications and resources that contain similar information, but may not meet state laws.   Please consult with your legal advisor in order to make sure that your documents meet state laws.

Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care

A Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care is a legal document that lets you identify another person to make health care decisions for you if you become unable to communicate what you want. Normally, a durable power of attorney for health care only takes effect if you become incapacitated and only lasts for as long as you are unable to communicate your own decisions.

Learn more about Living Wills and Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care and see sample forms (PDF)

Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) or Do Not Resuscitate (DNR)

A POLST form documents what, if any, medical treatments you want to prolong your life if you are currently terminally ill. Your doctor has an end-of life discussion with you and translates your wishes into actual physician’s orders on the POLST form. Having a completed POLST form helps make sure your wishes are followed by other medical professionals without delay. The POLST form must be an original and not a copy. Learn more about POLST.


Learn More

Frequently asked questions about guardianships in Washington State.

(search topic Guardianship Basics)

A person may be or become incapacitated and not have the ability to make health care decisions. This can be the result of an accident, illness, or disability.

If a person is incapacitated, a family member (or a friend, care facility, or case manager) may petition the court to appoint a legal guardian for him or her.

Guardians are charged to act on the person’s behalf and make decisions that reflect the values and needs of the person.

A guardian may also be appointed to oversee other things besides health care decisions including managing the person’s property, income, or finances.