4 minute read

Living Will vs DNR Order: What’s the Difference?

While both a living will and a DNR order come into play during end-of-life care, they are unique in their applications. T&W explains the differences.

Patrick Hicks

Patrick Hicks, @PatrickHicks

Head of Legal, Trust & Will

Although it may not be the most fun nor pleasant to think about, we should all know what our options are when it comes to our end-of-life care. In estate planning, there are two tools that apply: the Living Will, and the Do Not Resuscitate order (DNR). They are similar in that they provide instructions and control outcomes when we reach an end-of-life circumstance. However, they have unique applications.  This guide will explain these similarities and differences between the two important end-of-life documents: the Living Will vs. DNR.

What is a Living Will?

A Living Will is a type of estate planning document that allows you to leave instructions for your end-of-life care. This includes decisions on medical care and instructions on what should happen if you reach an end-of-life circumstance. A Living Will is unique from other estate planning tools in the sense that it deals with your health and medical care, rather than the protection and transfer of assets upon death. Learn more about the purpose of a Living Will here.

What is a DNR?

A Do Not Resuscitate order is a medical order that stops doctors and other medical staff from resuscitating you. In other words, if you were to experience cardiac or respiratory arrest, you will not receive CPR or other emergency procedures in an attempt to revive you. DNR orders only go into effect at the time of death, and are typically used by patients who have a terminal illness,  chronic disease, and other acute conditions. A DNR order can be included as an Advance Directive in your Estate Plan. For more in-depth information, visit our What is a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) Order guide that explains more about how DNRs work and why a person may establish one.

What is the Difference Between a DNR and a Living Will?

The key difference between a living will and DNR comes down to what’s included in the documentation. Per our definitions above, you may have noticed how both types of documents address end-of-life care.

A DNR carries the specific and sole purpose of informing medical care providers about whether or not wishes to be resuscitated. DNR forms must be obtained from a physician, as the document is signed by both the patient and the physician. Once completed, the physician enters the DNR order into the patient’s medical records. The patient may also carry the original copy and/or wallet cards to keep on their persons. This is helpful so that any medical response team can identify the patient as DNR when they are incapacitated and cannot express their own wishes. A DNR only goes into effect when the patient’s heart stops or they stop breathing.

A Living Will, in contrast, is a legal document that covers a wide range of specifications around end of life care and planning. For instance, you can give instructions about treatments you wish or do not wish to receive if you become terminally ill or vegetative. You can also express in what conditions any treatments should be stopped. Living Wills go into effect when you become incapacitated and are unable to communicate your wishes. 

Absolutely anyone can benefit from a Living Will, no matter their stage in life. It can provide peace of mind knowing that if anything were to happen, your wishes for medical care would be known. Meanwhile, DNR orders are typically used by patients that are elderly or in poor health, where CPR efforts could likely cause injury and damage. That is not to say that DNR orders do not get used for all types of patients, but they are typically not planned in advance. They are often made as a doctor’s judgment call when resuscitation efforts would be futile.

Does a Living Will Include Do Not Resuscitate?

A Living Will does not include a Do Not Resuscitate order, although both types of documents can be included in an Advance Directive. 

However, you can leave instructions about how you do not want to be resuscitated if you go into cardiac or respiratory arrest, and list out the conditions in which this would apply. For example, you could include the conditions of terminal illness, severe dementia, chronic disease, organ failure, and when you are not waking up from a coma.

The next step would be to set up a Medical Power of Attorney, also called a Durable Power of Attorney. In this document, you would designate your health care agent. This is someone you trust and can make decisions and authorizations concerning your medical care if you ever become incapacitated. 

With the Living Will and Medical Power of Attorney in place, you have the ingredients needed in order for a DNR to be written on your behalf. If there comes a time in which a DNR would become appropriate, the form can be signed by your attending physician and your healthcare agent. 

Because the outcomes based on a Living Will and/or Do Not Resuscitate order are concerning life-or-death matters, it’s important to be very intentional in choosing which documents to use. Know that you can revoke either document at any time. When you set up your first Living Will, you may not have a clear idea of what kind of medical care you would want. As you get older, these values and desires can shapeshift. Luckily, you can revise and update your Living Will at any time.

If for some reason you have a DNR, know that you can change your mind. Let your doctor know immediately so that they can cancel your DNR and update your medical records. Although you can not edit or update a DNR, you can establish a new one. 

Create Your Living Will Today

Living Will vs. DNR: these two documents are similar in that they can both take part of your Advance Directive and that they both address your desires for end-of-life care. 

However, the purpose of these two documents are entirely different. DNRs are typically used by those who are nearing the end of their life, or have a terminal or critical illness. If they were to stop breathing or have a heart attack, they use the DNR solely for the purpose of rejecting resuscitation efforts.

A Living Will can be established by any adult, at any time. It can address a whole range of medical scenarios, conditions, and care instructions. If you are healthy, it makes more sense to set up a Living Will. You will always have the option to request a DNR later in life if your health enters a fragile state and you would prefer not to receive any emergency procedures. 

Planning your end-of-life care can be an overwhelming process. At Trust & Will, we strive to make these processes as easy and streamlined as possible. That way, you can focus on your decision-making so that you can set up your Estate Plan in the most effective way. Click here to find out more about what it would be like to establish a Living Will through our user-friendly platform. 

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