What is an advanced directive?

Life is unpredictable. Even if you’re at the pinnacle of health, running marathons and doing one-handed pushups, you could find yourself injured in a car wreck tomorrow. That’s why an advanced directive is so important. 

An advanced directive is a legal document that gives specific instructions regarding your healthcare wishes if you are incapacitated. There are any number of reasons you might not be able to communicate, including being under anesthesia, in a coma, or simply not well enough to speak coherently. In these instances, medical professionals will look to your advanced directive to guide them on how you want to be treated. Advanced directives are also sometimes referred to as healthcare directives or advanced medical directives. You may also hear the term “advanced directive” used interchangeably with “living will, though  there is some slight difference, as noted below.

Examples of advanced directives

There are many different types of advanced directives, but here are some of the most common:

Do-not-resuscitate (DNR) order: A declaration that you do not want to be resuscitated if your heart stops or if you stop breathing.

Organ and tissue donations: Your wish to donate organs, tissues, or both, either after death or while you are still alive.

Tube feeding: Directions regarding whether you’d like to be fed through a tube if you cannot eat or drink on your own.

Dialysis: Choices regarding whether to start, stop, or continue dialysis treatments.

Comfort care: A request to only get treatments that make you comfortable and manage symptoms during end-of-life care.

Advanced directive vs living wills: What’s the difference?

While you may hear the terms “living will” and “advance directive” used interchangeably, there are some distinctions between the two.

Living Will: This is a written document that lays out the treatments you’d want (or not want) if you become incapacitated. Common scenarios considered are terminal illness, persistent vegetative state, or severe brain injury. When people think of a “living will vs advance directive,” they’re often surprised to learn that a living will is actually a type of advance directive.

Advance Directive: This is a broader category, encompassing any written document in which a person specifies actions related to their health if they become unable to make decisions. This includes the living will, but it can also include the appointment of a health care agent or proxy.

Advance directive vs power of attorney

It’s important to know that an advance directive is not a power of attorney.

A power of attorney is a legal document in which you designate someone to make decisions on your behalf. If it’s specifically for health care decisions, it’s usually termed a “medical power of attorney” or “health care proxy.” This individual can decide on your healthcare needs based on the guidelines you’ve set in your advance directive.

The advance directive policy and procedure will vary based on where you live. It’s essential to understand the regional requirements, as the portability of advanced healthcare directives can differ. For instance, an advance directive prepared in one state might not necessarily be recognized in another.

How to prepare an advanced directive

Before putting pen to paper, spend some time considering your preferences regarding healthcare. Think about situations where you might be unable to communicate and what you’d want in those circumstances. You may also want to speak with medical professionals to understand potential future situations and the choices you might need to make. Discussing the importance of advance directives with them will provide insights into how they can help execute your wishes.

When it comes to preparing the actual legal document, there are numerous online resources where you can find advanced medical directive forms, though it’s always good practice to consult with your attorney. Some states even have their own specific forms. If you choose to create your directive online, it’s wise to have a lawyer review your advance directive, especially if you have concerns about its validity or comprehensiveness.

Once completed, be sure to share copies of your completed directive with your healthcare providers, your healthcare proxy (if you have one), family members, and keep one for yourself in a safe, accessible place.

The next step: Power of attorney

In addition to ensuring you have an advanced directive or living will, consider creating a power of attorney as well, who can act on your behalf regarding your financial matters should you be incapacitated. This will ensure that your finances can be kept in order and important decisions that need to be addressed urgently can be made.

A comprehensive approach to health and finance

We can’t predict the future, but we can prepare for it. And preparing means putting mechanisms in place that will serve us and our loved ones should an accident or health scare happen. That means drafting core documents like an advanced directive as a part of a complete estate and financial plan. Vanilla provides estate planning software for financial advisors and clients to create the estate planning strategies that are right for each client and keep all of their important documents and financial information in one place.

The information provided here does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice or tax advice; it is provided for general informational purposes only. This information may not be updated or reflect changes in law. Please consult with your financial advisor or estate attorney who can advise as to whether the information contained herein is applicable or appropriate to your particular situation.

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