Living Wills & Advance Health Care Directives: What are They?

Living wills and advance health care directives are legal documents that provide instructions for your medical care in the event you are unable to make those decisions for yourself (typically in the context of terminal illness, serious injury, coma, late stages of dementia, or other end-of-life situations).

An advance health care directive has a living will and also includes a durable power of attorney for health care. The durable power of attorney for health care names a health care agent who has the power to make medical decisions for you in the event of your incapacitation.

Both of these documents have several interchangeable names depending on the county, state or institution involved. A living will is also referred to as a directive to physicians, health care declaration, medical directive or health care directive. A durable power of attorney for health care may be referred to as a medical power of attorney, power of attorney for health care, designation of surrogate, or patient advocate designation. Finally, a health care agent may also be known as an attorney-in-fact for health care, patient advocate, health care proxy, surrogate, or health care representative.

What Details Can I Include in a Living Will or Advance Health Care Directive?

If you have a living will or advance health care directive, your physician must either abide by your instructions or step aside and let another physician treat you. Although it sounds similar, a living will has nothing to do with a conventional “will” that is used to leave property to beneficiaries upon your death.

Living wills and advance health care directives cover end-of-life medical decisions such as:

  • Resuscitation: Restarting the heart by CPR or by a device that delivers an electric shock to stimulate the heart.
  • Mechanical ventilation: Using a machine to take over breathing functions and when and for how long to be placed on a ventilator.
  • Tube feeding: Using tubes to supply the body with nutrients and fluids (either intravenously or through a tube in the stomach) and when and for how long to continue being fed in this manner.
  • Dialysis: Artificially removing waste from your blood and managing fluid levels if your kidneys no longer function and when and for how long to continue the dialysis.
  • Antibiotics or antiviral medications: Using drugs to treat bacterial and viral infections and whether to have aggressive or non-aggressive treatments.
  • Comfort care (palliative care): Ending life-prolonging treatment in favor of treatments that simply manage or minimize pain. Includes decisions such as being allowed to die at home, avoiding invasive tests and surgeries, pain medication, etc.
  • Organ and tissue donations: Whether to donate your organs for transplantation (which would require you to be kept on life-sustaining treatment temporarily until a transplant is complete).
  • Donating your body for scientific study: Registration for a planned donation can be done ahead of time with a medical school, university or other donation program.

As important as these documents are, there is no denying the fact that living wills and advance health care directives can be confusing. To ensure a successful outcome, contact Alameda County probate and estate planning attorney Hannah Sargent!