Advance Directives - FAQ's

What is the difference between a Living Will and Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care?

Both fall under the umbrella of Health Care Advance Directives. A living will instructs health care providers to withhold or withdraw medical treatment under certain circumstances. In most states, this only applies in the case of a terminal illness or near-death situation in which the patient will die shortly without medical intervention. Living wills do not allow for a surrogate to make decisions for you. Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care (or Health Care Proxy) is a document in which you appoint someone else to make all medical treatment decisions for you if you can’t make them for yourself. The person you name is called your agent, proxy, representative or surrogate. You can also include instructions for decision-making.

Are Advance Directives legally binding?

Advance Directive laws merely give doctors and others immunity if they follow your valid advance directive. Doctors can always refuse to comply with your wishes if they have an objection of conscience or consider your wishes medically inappropriate. However, they may have an obligation to transfer you to another health care provider who will comply. The only reliable strategy is to discuss your values and wishes with your health care providers ahead of time, to make sure they are clear about what you want and are willing to support your wishes.

Does an Advance Directive mean “do not treat”?

An Advance Directive can express both what you want and don’t want. Never assume it simply means “Do not treat.” Even if you decide against certain medical treatments, you should always be given “palliative care,” which aims to keep you pain free and comfortable by addressing your medical, emotional, social and spiritual needs.

If I name a health care proxy, do I give up rights to make decisions?

Naming a health care proxy or agent does not take away any of your authority. You always have the right, while you are still competent, to override the decision of your proxy or revoke the directive. However, if you do not name a proxy or agent, the likelihood of needing a court-appointed guardian grows greater, especially if there is disagreement regarding your treatment among your family and doctor.

At what age do I consider an Advance Directive?

Every adult (young and old) should have an Advance Directive. Younger adults actually have more at stake, because if stricken by serious disease or accident, medical technology may keep them alive for decades. Young adults should at least have a proxy decision-maker.

Do I have to use my state’s form for my Advance Directive to be valid?

Most states do not require a particular form, but do require witnessing other special signing formalities. Mercy has Advance Directive forms available for all patients. Ask your doctor or visit /advance-directives. You may also visit caringinfo.org to download a specific state Advance Directive.

What should I do after I give my doctor a signed copy of my Advance Directive?

Make sure she or he understands and supports your wishes. Make sure your proxy also has a copy of your directive. Talk with your proxy, family and friends about your decisions and medical wishes. Advance planning is also an ongoing process because your values and priorities may change with age. Be sure to review your wishes often.