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Living Will and Health Care Directive Explained

Many people don’t know that estate planning is about more than just what happens after you die. You should also prepare for situations in which you can no longer make or communicate your own medical decisions if you are seriously ill. You can do this by including legal documents like a health care directive or a living will in your estate plan.

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What Are Health Care Directives and Living Wills?

Health care directives and living wills contain written instructions regarding your medical care preferences if you are terminally ill or have some other end-stage condition. Some examples of end-stage conditions are:

  • Permanent unconsciousness
  • Persistent vegetative state
  • Dementia (and Alzheimer’s)
  • Advanced-stage cancer

In some states, health care directives and living wills may be referred to as an “advance directive,” “health care power of attorney,” “declaration regarding life-sustaining treatment,” “health care proxy,” or some other similar term. Despite what they’re called, all of these documents typically allow you to do the following:

  • State instructions for the medical care you want (or don’t want) to receive
  • Name a health care agent to make sure your instructions are followed and make other health care decisions on your behalf

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Health Care Instructions

A health care directive or living will shares your wishes about end-of-life health care, especially life-sustaining treatment. This type of treatment may extend the life of someone suffering from a terminal condition but won’t cure their underlying illness. Some examples are:

  • Artificial nutrition and hydration (like tube feeding)
  • Ventilators
  • Dialysis
  • Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)
  • Blood transfusions

You can also leave instructions for after your death regarding organ donation, autopsy, and body disposition (like whether you want to be cremated or buried).

Many health care directive and living will forms include a section for additional instructions where you can provide specific details about your end-of-life wishes. You can explain your values and beliefs, the pain medication you want or don’t want to receive, and other information you think will help guide your health care agent, doctors, or anyone else involved in your care.

Health Care Agent

A health care directive allows you to choose someone you trust to act as your health care agent and make medical decisions on your behalf. In some states, this person is known as a health care or medical “representative,” “proxy,” “surrogate,” “attorney-in-fact,” or some other similar term.

Your health care agent is responsible for overseeing your care and making sure your wishes are followed. If decisions that aren’t covered by your health care instructions need to be made, your health care agent will make those choices for you according to your personal goals and preferences. Unless you choose to limit their authority, your health care agent can usually make any health care decision for you that you would be able to make for yourself, like:

  • Request, access, and disclose your health care information
  • Admit and discharge you to and from medical care facilities
  • Make anatomical gifts
  • Provide, withhold, or withdraw life-prolonging procedures

Who Needs a Health Care Directive or Living Will?

It’s common for people to believe they don’t need to worry about end-of-life planning until later in life or if they’re diagnosed with a serious illness. Even if you’re perfectly healthy now, you should think about creating a health care directive, living will, or some other health care planning document.

These documents help you maintain control over the medical treatment and care you will receive if you are unable to communicate with those around you. Also, by preparing for the worst and making future medical care decisions now, you help to prevent your family and other loved ones from making tough choices later.

How Do I Get a Health Care Directive or Living Will?

Many people choose to make their own health care directives, living wills, and other estate planning documents. You can use simple online resources like Trust & Will’s do-it-yourself solutions to create the health care directive forms used in your state.

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This link will take you to a trusted partner’s site. FindLaw may earn a commission if you purchase estate planning products through this link.

Written by:

Jordan Walker, J.D.

Legal Writer

Reviewed by:

Catherine Hodder, Esq.

Senior Legal Writer