What is the difference between a living will and an advanced healthcare directive?

What is the difference between a living will and an advance healthcare directive? Well, these terms can be confusing but the short answer is that a living will is a type of advance directive, while “advance directive” is a broad term used to describe any legal document, or set of documents, that addresses your future medical care. Living wills are advance directives, but not all advance directives are living wills.

What is an advance directive?

An advance directive is any legal document or set of documents that expresses your wishes to your doctor about your medical care when you are incapacitated and unable to communicate.

When does the Advance Healthcare Directive take effect?

The Advance Directive only takes effect when you are considered incapacitated and cannot express your desires for yourself.

This could happen if you:

  • Are in a coma
  • Had a stroke
  • Suffered from dementia
  • Were under anesthesia
  • Had an illness that left you too sick to communicate

In our office and in New Jersey generally, an Advance Directive includes two documents: the Living Will and the Medical Power of Attorney.

In New Jersey, an Advance Directive may include both an Instruction Directive and a Proxy Directive. An Instruction Directive (Living Will) is a writing which provides instructions and direction regarding the person’s wishes for health care in the event that person subsequently lacks decision-making capacity. A Proxy Directive (Medical Power of Attorney) is a writing which designates a person of your choice to be your health care representative in the event the you lack decision-making capacity.

What is a Living Will?

A Living Will, permits an individual to provide a general statement of his or her wishes about health care in the event the individual has lost the ability to express his or her desires. A Living Will provides you the ability to write down your intentions regarding medical procedures in the event you can no longer speak for yourself.

The purpose of a Living Will is to provide a way that an individual can say “no” to medical treatment which prolongs death rather than improves recovery or quality of life. Note a Living Will does not permit a physician to take pro-active steps to terminate life, but rather allows you to instruct your doctor to withhold treatment in certain circumstances.

What is a Medical Power of Attorney?

The Medical Power of Attorney is a document which permits you to appoint an individual to make decisions on your behalf. In New Jersey, this is known as a Proxy Directive and may be included in your Advance Directive.

Where should I keep my Advance Directive?

The Advance Directive does you no good unless it is available. Since it obviously comes into play when you have lost the ability to express yourself, it is important for individuals other than yourself to know where it is. Most hospitals will ask you if you have executed an Advance Directive prior to admission. Certainly, the individual whom you have appointed as your proxy should have access to your Advance Directive.

When you have completed your Advance Directive, make several copies. Keep the original document in a safe but easily accessible place and tell others where you have stored it. DO NOT KEEP YOUR ADVANCE DIRECTIVE IN A SAFE DEPOSIT BOX. Have it readily available upon admission to a hospital or nursing facility. Give copies of your Advance Directive to the individuals you have chosen to be your Health Care Representative and Alternate Health Care Representative. You may also gives copies of your Advance Directive to your doctor, your family, clergy and to anyone who might be involved with your health care. Keep a completed ID (identification) card on your person and carry your Advance Directive with you when you travel.

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Todd Murphy

Todd Murphy is an estate planning lawyer in Morristown New Jersey where he helps modern families of all ages plan for the future.

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