Advance Directives, Living Wills, Powers of Attorney: What's the Difference?

By Shae Irving, Nolo

These legal documents have different names, but just one goal — helping you direct your health care if you become unable to communicate your wishes.

The documents that set out your wishes for medical care may go by various names depending on the state in which you live: advance directive, living will, declaration, power of attorney, patient advocate designation, and so on. These are all terms for health care directives — that is, documents that let you write out instructions about the type of health care you want to receive, including who should oversee your treatment, if you are unable to speak for yourself. Here’s a brief overview to help you understand these documents.

Living Will

This document bears no relation to the conventional will or living trust used to leave property at death. It's a document that lets you state what type of medical treatment you do or do not wish to receive if you are too ill or injured to direct your own care. (Among other things, you can use it to be sure doctors do — or do not — “pull the plug.”) The document may have a different name in your state (it's often called a "declaration"), but you’ll recognize it as the place where you write down your specific wishes about types of medical care.

Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care

This document, also known as a medical power of attorney, allows you to name a trusted person to make medical decisions for you if you are unable to communicate on your own. The person you name to make these decisions is usually called your agent or attorney-in-fact.

You can give your agent the authority to oversee the wishes you’ve set out in your health care declaration, as well as the power to make other necessary decisions about health care matters. Some states combine the declaration and durable power of attorney into a single form, most often called an “advance health care directive.”

Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) Order

If a medical emergency occurs, a DNR order alerts emergency personnel that you do not wish to receive cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). DNR orders are sometimes made to supplement other health care directives, usually by those who are already critically ill and feel strongly that they do not want to receive life-prolonging treatment when close to death.

If you are in the hospital, you can ask your doctor to add a DNR order to your medical record. If you are not hospitalized, you can make what's called a prehospital DNR order to keep nearby in case paramedics are called to your home or care facility.

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