Advance directives and living wills are legal documents that give instructions to your family members, health care providers, and others about the kind of care you would want to receive if you can no longer communicate your wishes because you are incapacitated by a temporary or permanent injury or illness. Other kinds of documents, like health care proxies and powers of attorney, appoint a trusted individual to make certain kinds of decisions on your behalf in certain situations.

Many people assume that their family members would automatically be able to make decisions about medical treatments if they were to become incapacitated. However, rules vary greatly from state to state. In some cases, decisions are left up to the health care providers and institutions in charge of your care unless you have appointed someone as your legal representative. If the decision falls to your family, they may not all agree on the best course of action. It is therefore important to have a plan ahead of time to avoid disagreements around treatment issues if you are incapacitated. Advance directives, living wills, health care proxies, and powers of attorney can help ensure that decisions made on your behalf meet your needs and preferences.

  1. Living will: A written record of the type of medical care you would want in specific circumstances.
  2. Health care proxy: A document that names someone you trust as your proxy, or agent, to express your wishes and make health care decisions for you if you are unable to speak for yourself
  3. Advance directive: Often refers to a combination of the living will and health care proxy documents.
  4. Power of attorney: A document—typically prepared by a lawyer—that names someone you trust as your agent to make property, financial, and other legal decisions on your behalf.

You may choose to appoint the same person to be in charge of your medical and financial decisions by naming them your health care proxy and granting them power of attorney. However, doing so usually requires two separate documents.

If you have an advance directive, your doctors should make note of it in your medical record. Be sure to give these documents to the hospital each time you are admitted.