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Advance Healthcare Directive vs Living Will: What’s the Difference?

Read on to get clear definitions of advance healthcare directive and living will, and better understand the difference between these two document types.

Patrick Hicks

Patrick Hicks, @PatrickHicks

Head of Legal, Trust & Will

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What is the difference between an advance directive vs. living will? They are both powerful estate planning tools that address your wishes pertaining to your future medical care. Some will argue that the two are interchangeable (meaning they’re the same), while others will point out that they’re actually different. Either way, it’s clear that the two terms often get confused. Everyone deserves to go into their estate planning with clarity and confidence, especially when it comes to something as important as your health and longevity. We’re here to investigate and find out the answer once and for all. 

What is an Advance Healthcare Directive? 

An advance healthcare directive is a set of legal documents that designate your wishes surrounding your future medical care. The directive comes into play in any temporary or permanent scenario in which you become incapacitated and can’t communicate your wishes. They also go into effect if you can no longer make your own decisions regarding your medical care. 

These are typically caused by severe medical events such as a coma, dementia, stroke, or any other circumstance that impairs your cognitive and/or motor functioning.

The possibilities on what you can include in an advanced healthcare directive are endless. It can encompass anything and everything relating to your medical care. However, since the list is endless, most individuals tend to address the events that are the most common and likely to occur. 

Here are some items that are often included in an advanced healthcare directive:

  • A medical Power of Attorney (POA), also known as a healthcare proxy, who will have the legal authority to make medical decisions on your behalf

  • Directives regarding your mental health care (Psychiatric Advance Directives, or PAD)

  • Living Will document

You can read a further expansion on the advance directive definition here. You can also learn much more in our complete advance directive guide!

What is a Living Will? 

A living will is a legal document that is also used to document your wishes pertaining to your medical care, should you become unable to make decisions or express your wishes. 

Living wills typically focus on scenarios in which your illness or wounds are terminal in nature, and what type of life-sustaining efforts you would or wouldn’t want made.

Here are some items that your document might describe:

  • What treatments you wish or refuse to receive

  • What medications you wish or refuse to receive

  • Whether or not you want your life prolonged, and for how long

  • Any religious or philosophical beliefs you want observed

  • Instructions pertaining to your end-of-life arrangements

  • Instructions regarding organ donations

  • Healthcare forms, such as a do not resuscitate (DNR) order, do not intubate (DNI) order, or physician orders for life-sustaining treatment (POLST)

This list is not exhaustive by any means. For a deeper understanding on the purpose of a living will, and what you can include in your living will, check out our guide here.

What’s the Difference Between Advance Directive and Living Will?

So now the question is, what’s the difference between an advance directive and a living will? 

An advance directive is any type of legal document that addresses your wishes about your future medical care. 

By this definition, a living will is a type of advance directive. However, an advance directive is not always a living will, because it is a broader category that includes other documents. Other legal documents that belong to the advance directive category include a medical power of attorney and a psychiatric advance directive. 

Why Advance Directives and Living Wills Are Important

Advance directives, including living wills, are important legal documents that work in tandem to obtain a single goal: to make sure that your wishes regarding medical care are honored in case you become incapacitated.

It’s possible to have just a living will, or just a medical power of attorney, but together, the efficacy is magnified. For example, if you were to become incapacitated, your living will would serve as a helpful guideline for what types of medical care you would or wouldn’t want to receive. However, your Will may not address every situation, and you wouldn’t be available to provide clarification when needed.

Here, if you set up a medical POA, you’d have a trusted individual such as a family member who is legally authorized to fill in the gaps and make these decisions on your behalf. 

Further, you could include a psychiatric advance directive (PAD) to address your preferences for future mental health treatment if needed. PADs have become more commonplace as education and awareness surrounding mental health increase. Psychiatric incapacitation is just as worthy of attention and planning as physical incapacitation.

Medical care decisions are extremely personal, are rarely talked about, and can even be controversial. It might even be something you’ve never really thought about before, because an incidence of incapacitation feels so unlikely. 

Would you want to be put on life support? Would you want to be resuscitated if you were declared to be in a permanent vegetative state? Who do you trust to make medical decisions on your behalf? Does that person know what medications you’re allergic to?

Going through the process of putting your advance directive, including your living will, will force you to ask yourself these questions that you may have never thought about before. Doing so will give you peace of mind knowing that should you ever become incapacitated, you had the opportunity to express your wishes so that they can be honored.

Further, these legal documents can help your family navigate through a difficult time. Having a loved one become incapacitated causes much grief and stress. Not knowing what calls to make regarding your medical care can make things feel that much worse. By laying out exactly what you would want, they can feel confident accepting or denying treatments from your health care providers.

Create Your Will & Advance Directive with Trust & Will

We began this guide with some confusion surrounding the difference between living wills and advance directives. Are they the same thing, and can the two terms be used interchangeably?

It turns out that the answer is “not quite.” They both share the same end goal, which is to address your wishes regarding your future health care. However, a living will is a type of advance directive, a term used to describe a broader category. Advance directives is any legal document that addresses medical care in any shape or form. That includes a living will, a medical POA (or healthcare proxy), and even a mental health directive.

At Trust & Will, we always recommend creating an estate plan that is as exhaustive as possible. That increases the chances that all bases are covered, should anything unexpected arise. Based on this advice, it’s recommended that you work toward creating a comprehensive advance directive. 

If you had to start somewhere, it would be your living Will. That way, you can have peace of mind knowing the basics are covered, and that you had the opportunity to address your medical care wishes. Once you’ve completed your living Will, it makes sense to establish your medical POA so that you know that a trusted loved one can fill in any gaps and make calls on your behalf. At this point, you already have your advance directive. Then, you have the opportunity to bolster your plan with any other types of directives you feel like you might need.

Need help starting your advance directive? We’ve got your back! Let’s get started with your living Will and other healthcare documents today.

Is there a question here we didn’t answer? Reach out to us today or Chat with a live member support representative!

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