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Advance Directive vs Living Will: Distinctions You Need to Know

Written by: Mathew Courtney, Esq. , Contributing Author
Reviewed by: Catherine Hodder, Esq. , Senior Legal Writer
Last updated March 08, 2024

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Arguably one of the most important steps in estate planning is figuring out what medical decisions you would like during your end-of-life care. While nobody wants to believe they will get sick or injured, life can be unpredictable. Having a plan in place can help ensure your wishes are followed, and your family members can know that the health care you receive is what you would have wanted.

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Advance directives and a living will are often confused due to their similarities. While both documents help in the context of making medical decisions, a living will is actually one of the multiple documents that make up a collection of advance directives.

What Are Advance Directives?

Advance directives are legal documents that come into effect when you cannot communicate your desires. They may also be referred to as:

  • Health care directives
  • Advance health care directives
  • Advance medical directives

Some of the documents that make up advance directives are:

The requirements for drafting valid advance directives are determined by state law. Some states permit your family members to act on your behalf, while others require proof you have done advance care planning.

In the event you have an accident or are suffering from a terminal illness, having input in your end-of-life decisions and naming a health care proxy to act on your behalf ensures they will follow your wishes.

What is a Living Will?

A living will is a type of advance directive that allows you to determine what medical treatments you do or do not want when you are unable to make your own health care decisions due to incapacity. This document gives you the power to determine how you will receive medical care even if you can no longer speak.

The living will document informs your health care agent and providers about whether you want to continue, stop, or prohibit certain medical treatments altogether. Some of the common topics in a living will include:

  • Life-sustaining Treatment. When your body cannot keep itself alive naturally, this treatment may include placement on a respirator or ventilator to aid with breathing or dialysis if your kidneys are no longer functioning. You may also give directions if you are in a persistent vegetative state and there is no clear indication you will ever recover.
  • Organ Donation or Tissue Donation. You can express your wishes on whether you would like to donate your organs or body tissue or prefer to be buried or cremated.
  • Hydration and Nutrition. If you are unable to eat or drink on your own, whether you would like to continue receiving food and water through a feeding tube or intravenous (IV) drip.
  • Religious Preferences. If your religion permits or prohibits certain treatment decisions, you may include those preferences in a living will to ensure the medical staff does not violate a closely held religious belief.

If there are preferences you are unsure of, you can consult with a medical professional to address any questions or concerns you may have regarding how care will be handled based on different situations. Additionally, a living will is revocable up until the time you become incapacitated. You can amend it at any time prior to an incapacitation.

A living will can be as in-depth as you choose to make it. In the end, your loved ones are already trying to process their emotional situation. If they know your health care wishes, it helps them in the decision-making process when you cannot participate.

What Are the Distinctions?

Ultimately, there is a reason that advance directives and living wills are often confused with one another. The most significant distinctions are that a living will:

  • is one document that makes up a collection of advance directives
  • can dictate what medical care you want or don’t want
  • does not name a health care agent to make medical decisions for you
  • is not the same as a last will and testament

While a living will is certainly an important step in creating your complete estate plan, you should have other essential documents before you can consider yourself set. Creating a health care power of attorney, naming a healthcare agent to be the person in charge of making decisions, and determining whether you would like to create a do not resuscitate order all go into the broader definition of advance directives.

Additionally, make sure to refer to your state’s laws when putting together your advance directives to ensure you properly execute them.

Creating Advance Directives or Living Will

Creating a plan for your end-of-life care is essential to estate planning. By having a plan in place, you ensure you are not subject to decisions you wouldn’t make yourself, and it can alleviate pressure from loved ones who would have to make the decisions for you.

You can use do-it-yourself estate planning tools to help you draft your living will or additional advance directives. If you would like to get legal advice while preparing your advance directives, you may want to consult a local estate planning attorney to answer your questions.

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