Living Wills and Health Care Powers of Attorney

Modern technological advances now enable people to remain alive by artificial means for long periods of times. But what happens if someone cannot make a health care decision or does not wish to prolong his or her life artificially?

Advance directives for health care were developed to address these questions. Most states have two types of advance directives for health care. The advance directive or “living will” is a document that can authorize an attending physician to withhold or withdraw life-sustaining or life-prolonging procedures. In some states, it can also be written to direct a physician to do everything necessary to sustain life. A living will statement is usually called a declaration or directive, and the person executing a living will is called a declarant. The health care power of attorney is a document in which one person called the principal appoints another person called the agent to make health care decisions for the principal when he or she is unable to make such decisions. In most states, the agent can make decisions about any type of health care decision, including the withholding or withdrawal of life-sustaining or life-prolonging procedures.

What is the difference between a living will and a health care power of attorney?

A living will only applies to whether or not artificial means should be used to sustain or prolong the life of an incapacitated person suffering from a terminal condition or unconscious and not expected to regain consciousness, or suffering from severe dementia and not expected to recover. A living will generally does not apply to any other circumstances.

On the other hand a health care power of attorney may be used to make a far broader range for health care decisions. For example a health care power of attorney can be drafted to include provisions related to the use of artificial life support even if the condition is not terminal. An advantage of the health care power of attorney is that its preparation encourages you to think about and discuss these important issues with friends and family. A health care power of attorney can cover not just the specific directives about future treatment, but also the basis upon which the agent will decide unforeseen future treatment. If you choose to give this broader type of power, it is crucial that the agent be someone you trust completely and who knows your wishes about health care.

If you, the principal, have executed a health care power of attorney and the agent has been given clear instructions, the agent must follow your wishes.