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Health Care Proxy vs Living Will - What’s the Difference

A health care proxy and a living will both play a significant role in end-of-life healthcare decisions. Learn key differences between them here.

Patrick Hicks

Patrick Hicks, @PatrickHicks

Head of Legal, Trust & Will

A Health Care Proxy and Living Will are both estate planning documents that make up your Advance Directive - tools that allow you to direct how your medical decisions to be made if you become incapacitated. These documents can and should be utilized in tandem, as they both perform important functions pertaining to your future medical care. Keep reading to find out the key differences between a Health Care Proxy vs. Living Will.

What is a Health Care Proxy?

A Health Care Proxy, also called a Medical Power of Attorney, is a type of estate planning document that allows you to appoint a proxy (an agent) to make medical decisions on your behalf if you were to become incapacitated. There are several circumstances why a person would become incapacitated. Some include coma, dementia, terminal illness, and mental health crisis. When you are deemed incapacitated by your attending physician, then your Health Care Proxy kicks in. Your appointed proxy will then be able to step in and advocate for your needs and make those medical decisions on your behalf. 

Here are some sample areas of responsibility of a Health Care Proxy:

  • Reviewing your medical chart

  • Asking questions and receiving explanations from medical staff

  • Discussing different treatment options

  • Asking for consultations and second opinions

  • Make informed medical decisions on your behalf

  • Consenting or refusing tests and treatments

  • Advocate for your needs when necessary

  • Making decisions regarding life support or life-sustaining interventions

  • Approving the transfer between attending physicians or hospitals

For more information on the role of a Health Care Proxy, be sure to read: “What is a Health Care Proxy & Do I Need One?”

After looking at this possible list of responsibilities, you may realize that serving as Health Care Proxy is a significant undertaking. Further, you may be wondering how the Proxy should make such important decisions pertaining to something as sensitive and fragile as medical care. 

This is where the Living Will comes in.

What is a Living Will?

A Living Will works in tandem with your Health Care Proxy to form your Advance Directive. It’s an estate planning document to leave your instructions for your future medical care, plus any end-of-life decisions to be made. It lasts throughout your life, and similar to the Health Care Proxy, goes into effect when you are deemed incapacitated.

One of the best ways to help explain the purpose of a Living Will is to ask this question: “How will your loved ones and your Health Care Proxy know what kind of medical care you’d like to receive if you’re unable to communicate?” 

Oftentimes, the answer is that they wouldn’t. We don’t often talk about abstract scenarios that may or may not happen in the future, especially morose topics such as end-of-life scenarios. Further, our desires and beliefs could change as we grow older. That’s why it’s critical to make these decisions and record them in a legally-binding document. Don’t worry - you can and should keep it updated should your beliefs, desires, and medical circumstances change.

Thanks to a detailed Living Will, your Health Care Proxy is enabled to make critical and sometimes controversial decisions from an informed place. Read more about the Purpose of a Living Will for more information.

Here is a brief list of topics you should consider addressing into your Living Will:

  • CPR (Cardiopulmonary resuscitation)

  • Mechanical ventilation

  • Tube feeding

  • Dialysis

  • Antibiotics and other medications

  • Comfort (palliative) care

  • Organ and tissue donations

  • Donating your body to science

  • End-of-life treatments and interventions

  • Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order (if so desired)

Difference Between Health Care Proxy and a Living Will

A Health Care Proxy is used to name an individual who has the legal agency to step in and make your medical decisions if you become incapacitated. A Living Will is used to communicate your wishes and decisions regarding your future medical care should you become incapacitated. Both documents are durable throughout your lifetime, and only go into effect if you are deemed incapacitated by your attending physician.

Again, incapacitation can happen in scenarios such as a coma, serious illness, dementia, or a mental health crisis. These conditions all affect your cognitive ability to make and communicate your own decisions. 

These two documents are most effective when used in tandem. When combined, they form a set of estate planning documents called an Advance Directive. These help inform your loved ones on your medical care decisions, plus help your Health Care Proxy step in and make decisions on your behalf from an informed place.

Because serving as a Health Care Proxy can be a high-pressure responsibility, always make sure to have a sit-down conversation with the person you have in mind and ask for their permission. Also be sure to check in with them and ensure that they feel up to the job. Another important point is to make sure they are aligned with your values and beliefs. Naming a trustworthy person who you feel confident in is paramount. 

Can a healthcare proxy override a living will?

A Health Care Proxy cannot override any provisions made in a Living Will. A Living Will is legally-binding and must be followed. Therefore, it is helpful to both the Proxy and the medical care team if the Living Will is detailed and specific as possible. A Living Will that is scant or too general in nature can cause confusion and leave decisions up for debate.

Can you have both a living will and a healthcare proxy?

Absolutely. You can and should create both a Living Will and a Health Care Proxy. When used in tandem, these two documents form your Advance Directive. Aforementioned, this is your set of estate planning documents that pertain specifically to your future medical care. The Living Will serves the important role of communicating your medical wishes and instructions. The Health Care Proxy is the document that allows you to appoint another individual to make decisions and advocate on your behalf. 

Take Action Today to Create Your Living Will 

Although it may sound cliché, sharing is caring. As you may have gathered from this guide, serving as someone’s Health Care Proxy is a significant responsibility. However, the alternative could be much worse. If you were to become incapacitated and didn’t have an Advance Directive in place, this means that your medical providers and loved ones would essentially need to make their best guesses regarding your medical care. Further, these medical decisions could be completely misaligned with your wishes and values.

By putting an Advance Directive in place, you could prevent this stressful scenario. By using your voice today, you can make sure that your voice is still heard in the future if you become incapacitated or when you reach the end of your life. Your Health Care Proxy will be legally enabled to step in and make those decisions on your behalf from an informed and empowered place.

A Health Care Proxy vs. Living Will serve different but complementary functions. Together, they perform the powerful Advance Directive that allows you to make your future medical decisions known. Don’t forget to have transparent conversations with your trusted Health Care Proxy and verify that they are fit for the responsibility. 

If you are worried about the process of setting up your Estate Plan and Health Care documents, we have just the thing for you! Trust & Will offers a solution that makes it easy, affordable, and accessible to set up your healthcare-related documents in one fell swoop! Check out our Healthcare Documents now and find out all that it has to offer. You’ll be surprised at how easy it can be to get started. 

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