Advance Directive vs Living Will: What Is the Difference?

What Is a Living Will?

A living will is a document that tells your doctor what kind of medical treatment or care you want – or don’t want – if you can no longer express your wishes yourself.  If you have a living will, your doctor will know what treatments you would or would not want to receive, such as CPR, tube feeding, or dialysis. A living will usually cover a specific period of time, such as when you are in a coma or have a terminal illness. You can also include instructions about organ donation.

What Is an Advance Directive?

An advance directive is a document that tells your doctor what kind of medical treatment or care you want – or don’t want – if you can no longer express your wishes yourself. It can also be called a “health care proxy” or “durable power of attorney for health care.” Naming a healthcare proxy is often the best way to ensure that you have someone on your side who will follow through with any decisions related to medical care in case it becomes necessary.  A healthcare proxy may be a partner, friend, or family member who you believe will follow your wishes regarding your health.  An advance directive can be for any time, not just when you are in a coma or have a terminal illness. You can use it to say what you want to be done if you have a stroke, are in a car accident, or develop dementia.

When Should You Create One of These Documents?

You should create an advance directive and living will as soon as possible. You never know when an illness or accident might happen. It is paramount to have these documents in place so that your wishes can be known and followed. Also, these documents can be difficult to understand if you are not feeling well. It is essential to have these documents in place so that your doctor, family members, or friends can easily find out what kind of medical treatment or care you would want. These documents come in handy when you are the only one who knows what your wishes would be. If you don’t have either document, a court could determine what kind of medical treatment or care you receive – even if that is not what you would have wanted.

What to Include in These Documents?

In an advance directive, you should include:

  • Your name and contact information
  • The name of your health care proxy (if you have one). This can be a family member, partner, or friend who has been given the authority to make medical decisions on your behalf.
  • Preferences regarding particular medical treatments, resuscitation efforts, and life-sustaining efforts. This can include directions regarding the use of mechanical ventilation or feeding tubes and certain surgeries and medications.
  • Instructions about organ donation

In a living will, you should include:

  • Your name and contact information
  • Instructions about your care if you are in a coma or have a terminal illness
  • Instructions about your care if you are not able to express your wishes yourself for any other reason
  • Wishes on whether you want your life prolonged for a period of time will be included
  • Any religious preferences you wish to be observed

Who Needs to Know About Your Decision?

It is essential that you tell someone what kind of medical treatment or care you want in an emergency if you can no longer express your wishes yourself.  This is so they can follow the instructions in your advance directive or living will. You should also give a copy of these documents to your doctor. A copy can be given to your family or health care proxy (if you have one) as well.

Common Mistakes People Make When Writing Their Advance Directives or Living Wills:

  • Not including contact information or not having an up-to-date contact information list.
  • Not specifying what treatments they do and do not want.
  • Failing to name a health care proxy.
  • Leaving the decision up to the doctor. The doctor should follow your wishes, not theirs.
  • Not providing for specific circumstances you might find yourself in. For example, if you are left in a coma after an accident or if you have Alzheimer’s disease and are no longer able to express your own wishes about medical treatment.
  • Not updating their advance directive or living will when their wishes change. Your advance directive and living will should be reviewed and updated on a regular basis.

Final Thoughts

When the end of life is near, you will have to make many decisions. It can be very difficult to know what your wishes are if you can no longer express them.  Advance directives and living wills let your doctors and your family know what kind of medical treatment or care you want – or don’t want – at the end of your life. It can be hard to think about end-of-life issues, but it is important that you do. It is important to remember that an advance directive and living will are not one-time documents – they should be reviewed and updated on a regular basis.  Speak with your doctor, family members, and friends about your wishes, and make sure everyone knows where to find your advance directive or living will in case of an emergency.

If you do not make an advance directive, it is up to the courts to decide what kind of medical treatment or care you receive if you can no longer express your wishes yourself.
Be sure to tell your doctor and family members in advance if you do not wish to receive certain types of medical treatment or care. For example, you can say that you do not want CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) or life-prolonging treatment if you are in a coma or have a terminal illness.
If you change your mind after creating an advance directive, you should update your document as soon as possible. This is so there is no confusion about what medical treatment or care you want to receive.
An advance directive is a document that allows you to express your wishes regarding medical treatments and care. A living will is a specific type of advance directive that deals with life-prolonging treatments and is valid in some U.S. states only.
You can name a healthcare proxy, someone to act on your behalf when it comes to medical treatment or care if you cannot express your wishes yourself (for example, during an accident). You can choose anyone you like to be your health care proxy, such as a family member or friend.

True Tamplin, BSc, CEPF®

About the Author
True Tamplin, BSc, CEPF®

True Tamplin is a published author, public speaker, CEO of UpDigital, and founder of Finance Strategists.

True is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance (CEPF®), author of The Handy Financial Ratios Guide, a member of the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, contributes to his financial education site, Finance Strategists, and has spoken to various financial communities such as the CFA Institute, as well as university students like his Alma mater, Biola University, where he received a bachelor of science in business and data analytics.

To learn more about True, visit his personal website, view his author profile on Amazon, or check out his speaker profile on the CFA Institute website.