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What is an advance directive?

An advance directive is a form that you fill out to describe the kinds of medical care you want to have if something happens to you and you can't speak for yourself. It tells your family and your doctor what to do if you're badly hurt or have a serious illness that keeps you from saying what you want.

What are the different types?

There are two main types of advance directives:

  • A living will tells your family and your doctor what kinds of treatment you want to receive as you near the end of your life and if you can no longer speak for yourself. A living will is also called a treatment directive.
  • A medical power of attorney lets you name a person to make treatment decisions for you when you can't speak for yourself. This person is called a health care agent or health care proxy.

As long as you can still make your own decisions, your advance directive won't be used. You can stop or say "no" to treatment at any time.

How do you write an advance directive?

As you prepare your advance directive, you'll need to follow these four important steps:

  1. Get the living will and medical power of attorney forms for your state, or use a universal form that has been approved by many states. In general, doctors will respect your wishes even if you have a form from a different state.
  2. Choose your health care agent. This should be a person you trust to make decisions for you.
  3. Fill out the forms, and have them witnessed as your state requires.
  4. Give copies to your family, your doctor, and your health care agent.

You can get the forms in a doctor's office, hospital, law office, state or local office for the aging, senior center, nursing home, or online.

When you write your advance directive, think about the kinds of treatments that you do or don't want to receive if you get seriously hurt or ill.

Consider whether you want to:

  • Receive cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if your heart stops.
  • Be on a machine that pumps air into your lungs through a tube if you can't breathe on your own.
  • Be on a machine that cleans your blood if your kidneys stop working.
  • Be fed or get fluids through a tube if you can't eat or drink.
  • Take medicines to treat serious infections.

These are tough choices to make, but you don't have to make them alone. Take your time. Share your questions or concerns about what to include in your advance directive with your doctor or nurse, your lawyer, your family, or a friend.

What if you want to change what is in your advance directive?

You can change or cancel your advance directive at any time. Just fill out new forms and get rid of your existing forms. Or you can just let your family, your doctor, and your health care agent know about the change. If you change or create new forms, give everyone an updated copy. Don't just cross out or add new information unless it's only to change your address or phone number.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about advance directives:

  • What are advance directives?
  • What do they specifically cover?
  • Why is an advance directive important?
  • What is a living will?
  • What is a medical power of attorney or health care agent?

Things to consider:

  • How do you prepare an advance directive?

Ongoing concerns:

  • How do you know if you're including the right information?

Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.


Decision Points focus on key medical care decisions that are important to many health problems.
  Advance Care Planning: Should I Have Artificial Hydration and Nutrition?
  Advance Care Planning: Should I Receive CPR and Life Support?
  Advance Care Planning: Should I Stop Kidney Dialysis?
  Advance Care Planning: Should I Stop Treatment That Prolongs My Life?

An advance directive is a legal form that describes the kinds of medical care you want to receive if something happens to you and you can't speak for yourself. It tells your family and your doctor what to do if you're badly hurt or have a serious illness that keeps you from saying what you want.

The two main types of advance directives are a living will and a medical power of attorney.

Living will

A living will makes clear the kinds of medical care you want to receive if you get seriously hurt or ill and can't make your own decisions. It describes your choices for care and how you want them carried out if you're near the end of your life or are in the hospital with a serious illness. If you get better and can speak for yourself again, you can stop or say "no" to treatment at any time. If you have a living will, your choices will be honored. A living will is also called a treatment directive.

Medical power of attorney

A medical power of attorney lets you name a person to make treatment decisions for you when you can't speak for yourself. This person is called a health care agent or health care proxy. Some states may limit what your health care agent can decide for you. In a few states, he or she can speak for you right away and at any time that you don't want to make choices for yourself. He or she can also use your living will and what he or she knows about you to help guide your care.

When you choose a health care agent, select a person you trust to make medical decisions for you. For more information, see the topic Choosing a Health Care Agent.

As long as you can still make your own decisions, your advance directive won't be used. You can change or cancel it at any time. Your health care agent will only make choices for you if you can't or don't want to decide for yourself.

An advance directive is important in case something happens to you and you can't speak for yourself. It gives you control over your own medical care if you're badly hurt or if you develop a serious illness and you can't make your own medical decisions. It's also very important for your family and your doctor. They can use the information in your advance directive to make choices for you if you can't make them yourself.

A living will and a medical power of attorney are the main types of advance directives.

If you don't have a living will and a health care agent, a person other than your family member may decide what kind of care you receive. A decision may be made by a doctor who doesn't know you, or it may even be made by the courts. In some states, you need to make clear and give permission in your advance directive that you don't want to be fed through a tube or receive other kinds of life support.

Sometimes you and your family may need help agreeing on the best way to meet your medical needs. Eldercare mediation can help families work together.

Get started

If you've decided to write an advance directive, you've taken an important step to make sure that your health care wishes are met.

When you write your advance directive, think about the kinds of treatments you do or don't want to receive if you get seriously hurt or ill. If you have questions and need help to get started, see what things to include in an advance directive for some ideas.

Involve your family, your health care agent, and your doctor as you write your advance directive so they'll know what you want. If something happens that you didn't plan for, they'll have a better idea of how you would want to handle it.

There are many choices to make when you write your advance directive. Some of these have to do with whether you want certain treatments.

To help you decide which medical treatments you do or don't want to receive, see:

Should I Receive Artificial Hydration and Nutrition?
Should I Receive CPR and Mechanical Ventilation?
Should I Stop Kidney Dialysis?
Should I Stop Treatment That Prolongs My Life?
Turning Off Your ICD

These are tough choices to make, but you don't have to make them alone. Look to your family, your doctor, and your friends for help and support.

Write down your wishes

As you prepare an advance directive, you'll need to follow these four important steps:

  1. Get the living will and medical power of attorney forms for your state, or use a universal form that has been approved by many states.
    • Forms are different in each state. In general, doctors will respect your wishes even if you have a form from a different state.
    • You can get the forms in a doctor's office, hospital, law office, state or local office for the aging, senior center, nursing home, or online.
    • Your state may offer an online registry. This is a place you can store your advance directive online so authorized health care providers can find it right away.
    • You might use a universal form that has been approved by many states. This kind of form can sometimes be completed and stored online. Your electronic copy will then be available wherever you have a connection to the Internet.
  2. Choose a health care agent. This should be a person you trust to make decisions for you. For more information, see the topic Choosing a Health Care Agent.
  3. Fill out the forms, and have them witnessed as your state requires.
  4. Keep the original form in a safe but accessible place, such as in your desk with other important papers. Let your loved ones know where you keep your forms. Don't keep it in a safe deposit box unless others can get to it. On each copy, write down where the original form is kept. Give copies to:
    • The person that you choose for your agent and any alternate agents.
    • Your lawyer.
    • Your doctor or doctors.
    • Family members.
    • Any other person who may be called if you have a medical emergency.

You can change or cancel your advance directive at any time. Just fill out new forms and get rid of your existing forms. Or you can just let your family, your doctor, and your health care agent know about the change. If you change or create new forms, give everyone an updated copy. Don't just cross out or add new details unless it's only to change your address or phone number.

Organizations

Aging With Dignity (U.S.)
Web Address: www.agingwithdignity.org

American Hospital Association: Put It in Writing
Web Address: www.aha.org/advocacy-issues/initiatives/piiw/index.shtml

  • Advance Directive: What to Include
  • Care at the End of Life
  • Choosing a Health Care Agent
  • Hospice Care
  • Planning to Be an Organ Donor

Other Works Consulted

  • Cordts GA, et al. (2007). Care at the end of life. In LR Barker et al., eds., Principles of Ambulatory Medicine, 7th ed., pp. 192–207. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.

  • Kinzbrunner BM, Gomez D (2011). Advance directives and CPR at the end of life. In BM Kinzbrunner, JS Policzer, eds., End-of-Life Care, 2nd ed., pp. 521–539. New York: McGraw-Hill.

  • Reichman WE, et al. (2009). Legal, ethical, and policy issues. In DG Blazer, DC Steffens, eds., American Psychiatric Publishing Textbook of Geriatric Psychiatry, 4th ed., pp. 603–617. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.

  • Zisook S, et al. (2009). Death, dying, and bereavement. In BJ Sadock et al., eds., Kaplan and Sadock’s Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 9th ed., vol. 2, pp. 2378–2407. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.


By: Healthwise Staff Current as of: March 12, 2014
Medical Review: Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Shelly R. Garone, MD, FACP - Palliative Medicine

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