An Advance Directive Gets All Your Health Wants and Needs Rolled Up In a Neat Little Bundle

An advance health care directive, also called an advance directive, is a legal document stating how you would like to be treated at the end of your life.

At the end of life, the sadness and confusion surrounding death can be exacerbated if clear, legally-binding instructions for medical care and treatments haven’t been set down in writing. There can be confusion about who is in charge of making the most difficult decisions, and what kind of decisions you would want to make if you were still capable of deciding. By creating an advance health care directive, can you relieve this confusion and make decision-making easier for your family.

What is an advance directive?

An advance health care directive (also called an advance directive) is a legally-binding statement for how you would like to be treated at the end of your life, and is composed of two parts.

1. Naming a health care power of attorney, who can advocate for your care when you may not be able to
2. Creating a living will, stating the types of medical treatments you do and do not want at the end of your life

An advance directive can also include your status as an organ donor, and whether or not you would like to be resuscitated if your heart or breathing should stop (in other words, if you have a Do Not Resuscitate order).

Reasons for creating an advance health care directive

Creating an advance health care directive allows you to communicate to your family and caregivers the types of treatments you want and do not want, the way you would like to be cared for as you age, and who should make decisions for you if you can't make decisions for yourself. Not only does creating an advance health care directive ensure that your wishes are communicated and followed, but also takes an enormous amount of stress off your family, as they will not have to make these often difficult decisions about your care.

By naming a health care power of attorney you are appointing someone you trust to make medical decisions on your behalf should you no longer be able to make medical decisions for yourself. This ensures that someone who knows your wishes will be advocating for you when you may not be able to speak for yourself. In addition, by giving decision-making power to a single individual, you can help your family avoid confusion (and potentially fighting) about your care.

To learn more about the responsibilities of a health care power of attorney, see our article Naming a Health Care Power of Attorney.

By creating a living will you are specifying, in a legally binding document, the types of treatments and care that you would like to receive and not like receive at the end of your life. These are very personal decisions, and by deciding ahead of time the types of treatments you'd like and would not like, you can be sure to receive the care you want. In addition, many of the decisions you make in a living will are emotionally difficult decisions to make, and by creating a living will you can take an enormous amount of stress off your family, as they no longer have to make these often difficult decisions about your care.

For help deciding which medical treatments you want and which you do not want, see our article Evaluating Life-Support Treatments.

To find your state's advance directive form, use our resource State-by-State Advance Directive Forms.

Creating advance directives in more than one state

If you travel within the United States, if you live near the border of your state, or if you have multiple residences in different states, you might consider creating advance directives in your state as well as in neighboring states. Since advance directives are state-specific, an advance directive created in one state will not be valid in another state.

For help creating an advance health care directive, use our resource Checklist: Creating an Advance Health Care Directive.

To find your state's advance directive forms, use our resource State-by-State Advance Directive Forms.

Storing your advance directive

You will likely want to store your advance directive along with other legal, estate planning, and personal files. In addition, you may want to keep your advance directive on a flash drive that you can carry in your purse or on your keychain. This may include your living will, the documents naming your health care power of attorney, a DNR if you have one, or proof of your organ donor status if you are a registered donor. This way, if you are suddenly admitted to a hospital, you will have all your advance directive documents with you.

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