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What Are Advance Directives for Healthcare?

An advance directive—which includes a living will and health care power of attorney—is a legal document that outlines your wishes for the types of medical treatments you do or do not want. Not only does an advance directive outline your wishes, but it also appoints an agent the ability to make medical decisions on your behalf in the event you become incapacitated or otherwise unable to do so on your own.

If tragedy strikes, and you become incapacitated, some decisions that may need to be made include:

• CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation)
• Ventilator use
• Artificial nutrition or hydration
• Comfort care

There are two parts to an advance medical directive: the living will and the healthcare power of attorney.

Living Will
A living will outlines your wishes about the medical treatments you would to receive, should you become incapacitated. The living will goes into effect as soon as a physician certifies that you are incapacitated, in accordance with your state’s living will law. Every state is different. A qualified estate planning attorney can help you understand your state’s laws in order to draft an effective living will.

Health Care Power of Attorney
Also known as a “health care proxy,” this document legally appoints an agent to make medical decisions on your behalf, should you become unable to do so. Your agent should be someone you trust to make decisions in alignment with your wishes, as outlined in your living will.

Frequently Asked Questions About Advance Directives

What types of decisions can I outline in an advance directive?

An advance directive helps map out a variety of end-of-life decisions, such as whether you’d like to accept or refuse treatments that could prolong your life: CPR, the use of an AED, breathing machines or ventilators, medications, or artificial nutrition and/or hydration.

When is a good time to draft an advance directive?

The short answer is simple: before you need one!

When you are sound of body and mind is the perfect time to draft an advance directive. You won’t have outside distractions or heightened emotions to complicate your decision-making process. There will be no rush, and you can put the proper amount of time and energy into selecting an agent and thinking about what you really want.

Will my doctor know if I have an advance directive?

This is another reason why it’s good to draft an advance directive while you are healthy—it gives you the opportunity to let your physician know you have one, and to provide them with a copy. Take the opportunity to discuss your wishes with your healthcare provider. They may not be able to honor some of your wishes, in which case you will have time to find a provider who will, or revise your advance directive to outline a course of action that your physician can follow.

What happens if I don't have an advance directive?

In short, you could be given medical treatment that you don’t want. Your doctor may consult with your family about what they feel is best, which can get complicated if family members have different opinions about what is best for you. Depending on which state you live in, your doctor may be required to make healthcare decisions on your behalf, without consulting with your family. Other states may court-appoint a surrogate or proxy. Every state is different in how they handle this situation, so be sure to consult with an estate planning lawyer who can answer your questions.

Can I change my mind about the instructions in my advance directive?

Yes, you can change or revoke your advance directive at any time. You should review not just your advance directive, but also your other estate planning documents regularly to make sure they are up-to-date. Read our blog about the 7 Reasons to Update Your Estate Plan for more information.

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