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What to know about advance directive forms.

Learn about the documents you should prepare for end-of-life care.

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A photo of a person looking at an advance directive on a laptop computer.

Make a difficult time easier

Working through end-of-life care plans, living wills, and power of attorney can be difficult and often upsetting. Learn more about the process beforehand so you can get through it to focus on what matters.

What is an advance directive?

Advance directives are legal documents that explicitly state how you or a loved one want to be cared for when entering an end-of-life situation or a situation where you will be unable to direct your own care. While it’s a difficult task, it’s important to create them to give yourself and your family members peace of mind when the time comes.

A photo of a person working on an advance directive on a laptop computer.

What are the different types of advance directives?

There are different types of advance directives, but the two most common are the living will and durable power of attorney.

1. Living will.

The living will is a document that states your future healthcare decisions when you might be incapacitated or unable to make them on your own. Unlike a normal will, this type of advanced directive is used when you’re terminally ill or permanently unconscious.

The living will is designed to give instruction to minimize the difficulty your family and friends have to go through at the end of your life. Often, it includes:

  • A Do Not Resuscitate order (DNR), which is the instruction not to use CPR if your breathing or heartbeat stops
  • Whether you want IV or tube feeding of fluids or liquids if you are unable to eat or drink
  • If you want treatment for pain, nausea, and other symptoms
  • Instructions for organ donation

Also, a living will won’t keep you from receiving areas of care like antibiotics, minor pain medications, and other treatments that ease discomfort. You can change or take back your living will at any time and laws surrounding them vary from state to state. Make sure to speak to your healthcare provider team about the process.

2. Durable power of attorney for healthcare.

The other common type of advance directive is the durable power of attorney. This is a legal contract that names someone to be your proxy or a healthcare agent who will make healthcare decisions for you if you become unable to do so yourself.

Don’t think of this as signing away your power, as a proxy only becomes a proxy after your doctor determines that you are unable to make decisions about your own medical treatment. And should you regain your ability to make decisions, your proxy will no longer have decision-making power.

When needed, the proxy will act on your behalf and be responsible for enacting your wishes as best as they can. They will also have access to advance care planning and medical records. For this reason, when picking who has power of attorney, make sure to choose someone you trust.

A photo of two people discussing an advance directive.
A photo of two people reading an advance directive.

How to create advance directive forms.

Depending on where you’re currently living, how you set up your advance directive might be different, though most hospitals are legally mandated to provide you with assistance if you need it. Here are the common parts of an advance directive form:

1. Name and contact information for your proxy

2. Answers to prompted questions about your preferences for healthcare (for example, whether or not you consent to be put on life support)

3. General statements about your views on end-of-life care, including religious beliefs that might impact your care

4. A statement of what you want to happen with your body if your condition is terminal

5. Names and signatures of the individuals who witness you signing your advance directive

6. Signature and seal of a notary public

Plan for the future with help.

No two ways about it — creating an advance directive is a challenging process, both in terms of getting the paperwork right and in terms of the emotional toll it may take. Whether you’re currently in a situation that requires an advance directive or just planning for the future, handling paperwork that needs to be clear, consistent, and notarized can be a challenge.

For durable power of attorney and similar forms, make sure to consult with a legal professional before making any big decisions. Having a lawyer draft these documents for you is always the best bet.

When you go digital with your advance directive, you can prepare and sign forms and documents digitally to save time and reduce stress. On top of this, you can partner with online notary services like Notarize to make digital notarization a quick process.

A photo of two people working on an advance directive.

Common questions about advance directives.

What is the difference between power of attorney and advance directives?

There’s not that much of a difference between the two. All power of attorney documents are advance directives, but not all advance directives name a healthcare proxy, which means they don’t necessarily qualify as power of attorney documents.

When should I think about an advance healthcare directive?

It’s never too early to think about how you wish to be cared for in the event of an accident or unexpected event. Informing yourself and being prepared can only help. Focusing on big questions like healthcare directives help you square up with big questions that you may have not thought about in the past.

What’s the first step to creating an advance directive?

If you're already facing a serious medical issue, your healthcare provider may be able to help you with this paperwork. But to plan ahead, your first step should be to contact a lawyer with experience in estate planning. They’ll help you determine what your next steps will be and how best to ensure your desires are respected in the event of a serious medical or end-of-life situation.

While thinking and talking about end-of-life and serious medical care is not a light topic, getting your affairs in order will help you enjoy the time you have with the people you care about. It is never too early to start planning, and doing so can grant you peace of mind.