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Understanding Advance Directives for Medical Decisions

Health care advance directives are legal documents that allow you to describe what kind of medical care you want or who will make decisions about your care if you become unable to make your own decisions or communicate them.  

Health care advance directives include the following:  

  • A living willallows you to describe the kind of medical care and treatment you want—or don’t want—if you are terminally ill and unable to make or communicate those decisions on your own. For instance, in a living you will specify whether you do or do not want to remain on a life-support system if you are disabled and your doctor determines there is no medical probability of recovery. Doctors generally look to living wills only after they determine that a patient is both terminally ill and incapacitated.  
  • A durable health care power of attorney,sometimes called a durable medical power of attorney, applies in all situations where you lack mental capacity, regardless of whether you are terminally ill or injured. Like the durable power of attorney that allows you to name someone to handle your financial affairs if you become incapacitated, the durable health care power of attorney authorizes someone else to make decisions about your medical care if you can’t make those decisions or communicate them on your own. Depending on your state, this person may be called your “health care proxy,” “surrogate,” “agent,” or “attorney in fact.”  
  • A do not resuscitate (DNR) order.If it’s your desire, you can establish a DNR order to instruct medical professionals and emergency personnel not to revive you if you stop breathing or if your heart stops. 


Requirements for making legal health care advance directives vary from state to state. For help with advance directives in your state, visit https://www.caringinfo.org/planning/advance-directives, a program of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization where you can download a free advance directive form for your state. Understanding your end-of-life options regarding medical care and having your advance directive(s)on file will bring you peace of mind. A good reason to get started on this today.