The Basics of Advance Directives
Plan ahead for peace of mind
Every person has a right to make informed decisions about their medical care. But in a time of crisis, you may not be able to communicate your wishes.
Advance directives are legal documents that spell out your medical preferences when you can’t speak for yourself. They usually include two elements: a living will and a durable power of attorney for health care.
A living will outlines your medical care preferences when you are unable to communicate or make decisions for yourself. It allows you to share your personal beliefs and values. It also gives you a voice regarding things like your religion, family status and finances as they impact your care. Living Wills often address decisions around whether you want:
- Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) if your heart or breathing stops.
- Intubation if you are having trouble or cannot breathe on your own.
- Artificial nutrition and hydration (food and water) if you cannot eat or drink on your own.
A living will is a legal document as soon as you sign it according to the laws in your state. It only goes into effect after a doctor indicates that you meet certain criteria. For example, when you are unconscious due to illness or have a brain injury affecting your ability to think.
A durable power of attorney for health care is a legal document just like the living will. This document allows you to choose a person to carry out your medical care wishes when you cannot speak or make decisions for yourself. The person you choose is known as a proxy or agent.
Your agent can be anyone you trust. The key is to select a person who is most likely to understand and respect your directions. Make sure to ask your proxy before you designate them. They should feel confident that they can carry out your wishes. You can give your proxy as little or as much authority as you want. And you can change your proxy anytime.
It is important to plan ahead and create Advance Directives when you are clear-headed. The laws and forms differ from state to state. So be sure to look up your state’s regulations. You can get links to forms and steps to follow for almost every U.S. state here.
You can update your living will anytime you wish. As your health and values change, it is important that they are reflected in your legal documents. Revisit your documents on a regular basis. Let your family, friends and doctors know when you have made changes. Give them copies of the updated documents.
This communication is for informational purposes only, and does not constitute legal advice. Please contact a qualified legal professional for advice on advance directives, living wills and all related issues.
By Ginny Greene, Contributing Editor and Sarah Tautin, Additional Writer
National Institute on Aging. Health and aging: Advance care planning. Accessed: September 28, 2021.
National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. What is an advance directive? Accessed: September 28, 2021.
American Medical Association. Advance directives. Accessed: September 28, 2021.
Last Updated: October 1, 2021