Living wills and advance directives are sometimes confused when designing a comprehensive estate plan, but it's important to know the difference. Here's what you need to know.
What Is an Advance Directive?
An advance directive is a legal document that outlines your healthcare wishes in the event you become incapacitated due to injury, terminal illness, or a permanent vegetative state, and you can no longer make such decisions on your own behalf.
When you have an advance directive in your estate plan, your physicians can proceed with treatment according to your stated wishes. In other words, advance directives allow you to set out your preferences for future medical treatment.
You can terminate these directives at any time, as long as you aren't incapacitated.
It's important to understand that a living will is a type of advance directive.
What Is a Living Will?
A living will lets you set out what kinds of medical treatment you want in the event you are incapacitated—and, perhaps just as importantly, it allows you to state what types of medical care you don't want. These can include dialysis, intubation, being put on a ventilator, and other specific treatments.
Living wills are also used to address other kinds of healthcare choices, such as the use of a feeding tube if you're not longer able to feed yourself, and whether you want to be resuscitated if your heart stops beating.
What Is Healthcare Powers of Attorney?
The healthcare (or medical) power of attorney is another advance directive that's frequently used in an estate plan. Also known as a healthcare proxy, a healthcare power of attorney lets you designate an individual, known as an attorney-in-fact, to make medical and treatment decisions on your behalf if you become incapable of doing so.
Living wills and healthcare powers of attorney aren't an either/or situation. Instead, many people employ both types of advance directives to ensure that their medical care will be handled the way they want. While you should discuss your wishes with your attorney-in-fact, your living will can give them further direction and guidance.
When considering implementing advance directives in your estate plan, it's also important to note that each state has its own rules and regulations about such directives. Because of this, thorough research or consultation with an estate-planning attorney is highly recommended before you embark on creating an advance directive.
In a robust estate plan, advance directives such as living wills and healthcare powers of attorney can be used to complement each other, helping ensure that your medical treatment wishes are known and communicated to your healthcare providers, and lifting the burden of making such decisions from the shoulders of your grieving loved ones.