Unsure about the difference between advance directives and living wills?
Both documents address life-and-death decisions, but how do you choose the right one to represent your unique needs?
Don’t worry, by the end of this article, you’ll be ready to confidently draft the appropriate advance care planning document(s) to outline your wishes.
Living Will vs Advance Directive
First and foremost, an advance directive is a set of legal instructions that guide your medical care in the event you’re unable to make decisions during a time of illness or injury.
What’s the Difference Between an Advance Directive and Living Will?
A living will is one type of advance directive, which specifically focuses on life-sustaining measures as well as end-of-life treatments.
Other types of advance directives offer additional options, such as being able to appoint a healthcare agent to make decisions on your behalf. However, if you wish to dictate your preferences regarding life-sustaining treatments, you’ll need to complete additional documents such as a do-not-resuscitate order or living will separately.
Alternatively, some advance directives cover a wide variety of advance care planning options so that you only need to complete one form.
In other words, living wills and advance directives can overlap in terms of function, and are often referred to synonymously.
Each state has its own unique legislation governing advance directives. So, there is no one-size-fits-all definition for advance directives or living wills that is valid in every state.
Moreover, in most states, there is no designated format outlining what must be covered in a living will and advance directive. Therefore, people are free to use forms provided by their state, drafted by a lawyer, or even created independently.
Before you decide to complete your own, you should consult the laws governing the creation, revocation, and validity in the state where you’d like to execute your advance directive.
What is an Advance Directive?
An Advance Directive is a collection of legal forms that allow you to outline your health care preferences as well as appoint an agent to make medical decisions on your behalf in the event you become incapacitated.
Situations that may lead to a patient being declared medically incapacitated include:
- Terminal Illnesses
- Severe Injuries
In most cases, advance directives come into effect only once a physician declares you incompetent and therefore unable to make your own decisions.
An advance directive provides instructions on the type of treatment you want (and don’t want) to receive based on your condition. You can define your preferences regarding life-sustaining efforts, mechanical ventilation, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, artificial nutrition, surgeries, medication, treatments, and more with an advance directive.
Types of Advance Directives
The most common advance directives are a living will and medical power of attorney. However, there are several other types as well.
Below is a breakdown of the different types of Advance Directives enforceable throughout the United States (depending on your particular state of residence).
- Medical Power of Attorney: allows you to appoint someone you trust to make decisions and advocate for your medical care when you’re unable to do so yourself.
- Do Not Resuscitate: instructs medical professionals not to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if your heart stops beating or you stop breathing.
- Organ and Tissue Donation: indicates your desire to donate anatomical gifts in the event of your death, and specifies which tissues and organs you wish to donate.
What is a Living Will?
A living will is a type of Advance Directive that outlines your preferences regarding life-sustaining procedures and end-of-life medical treatment. A living will typically takes effect if you are in a state of permanent unconsciousness, your terminal illness progresses to the point of incapacitation (as determined by medical professionals), or you sustain a mortal injury and are unable to express your wishes.
Additionally, a living will specifies whether or not you want your life to be prolonged, what measures you want taken to keep you alive, as well as pain management, organ donation, refusal of medical care, and other medical preferences. It also allows you to specify any religious beliefs you would like observed that may prohibit life-sustaining procedures.
Why Living Wills and Advance Directives Are Essential
Without a completed and legally-binding living will and advance directive in effect, you and your loved ones may not have control over your medical and end-of-life care in the event you become incapacitated.
Healthcare professionals will also be unable to respond to you quickly in a time of crisis. Medical treatments that conflict with your beliefs may then be used without your consent — resulting in prolonged pain and suffering.
Furthermore, your loved ones will inevitably face the emotional burden of making life and death decisions on your behalf if you’re incapacitated and unable to communicate your wishes. Without an appointed healthcare agent, disagreements may occur, and physicians may not know which of your loved ones should get the final say regarding how to proceed with your medical treatment.
Completing a living will and advance directive allows you to take control of your future medical care and reduce suffering for you and your friends and family.