Many different legal terms are used to refer to arrangements a person makes about medical decisions if the person cannot communicate those choices in the future. Living wills, medical powers of attorney, and advance directives are some terms. What is the difference between a living will and an advance directive?
Advance Directives Demystified
When you tell someone or write down what kind of medical care you want , you have created an advance directive. It is that simple. You have given instructions about the medical care you want to have or do not want to have, down the road if you are not then capable of either choosing your care or communicating your wishes. If you are unconscious or if you develop a cognitive condition, such as Alzheimer’s, your advance directive would come into play to speak for you when you cannot.
Every state has different rules about what must be done for your advance directive to be legal and enforceable. Therefore, talk with an elder law attorney in your area to make sure that your advance directive is valid. The hospital and your doctor are unlikely to follow your advance directive, if it does not comply with your state’s law.
Many people do not prepare an advance directive because they are afraid that they are giving up the right to decide for themselves. They fear that whoever they name on the paper will get to decide whether they live or die, against their wishes. This is a myth, because your advance directive will never have more power than you do. You can always speak for yourself, as long as you can do so. Visualize the advance directive as something hibernating, that only wakes up if you cannot speak for yourself. As long as you can make and communicate your choices, the advance directive stays dormant.
Another myth about advance directives is that once you prepare one, you can never change it. People worry about what will happen if they have a falling out with the person named as their decision-maker in their advance directive. Do not worry. You can change your advance directive whenever you want to. You can revoke it, rip it up, name a different person or do whatever you wish. You can change your mind about the medical care you will want. Just let your doctor and hospital know you have changed or revoked your advance directive.
Now that you understand advance directives , a living will is a document that takes effect when a person becomes terminally ill and cannot decide. The living will states whether you want life sustaining treatment, if you are terminally ill or permanently unconscious. It names a person to decide for you if you cannot make your own choices or communicate them – called a healthcare proxy. A living will is one type of advance directive. Designate at least one backup person, called an alternate, subsequent, or conditional agent for healthcare decisions. You can either state specific medical care you want or do not want, such as life support, or you can merely give your agent the authority to make those decisions for you, based on the facts of your situation when you are critically ill.
This posting discusses the general law. Always talk with a local elder law attorney to learn your state’s law on advance directives.