TL;DR Advanced Directives Basics

Although we have a number of resources on this website that will help you think through your end of life wishes or provide you with starting points for a conversation with loved ones about their wishes, we know some of you feel either pressed for time or just overwhelmed by a lot of exposition (or both). So we have put together this “Cliff’s Notes” version of the very basics when it comes to Advanced Directives.

What is an Advanced Directive?
An advanced directive is a legal document that goes into effect only if you are incapacitated and unable to speak for yourself. Typically there are at least two parts to an advanced directive: 1) a living will and 2) a health care proxy designation or medical power of attorney.
  • A living will is a statement of the wishes that you have for your health care in certain situations, documented in advance so that they can be carried out later in the event that you can no longer make or communicate your own health care decisions due to a state of unconsciousness or other end-stage medical condition.
  • A health care proxy or medical power of attorney allows you to name someone to make decisions about your medical care if you can no longer make or communicate your own health care decisions due to a state of unconsciousness or other end-stage medical condition.


What Do I Need to Do?

  1. Download the forms that your state requires you use. Find them here.
  2. Decide some basic things about the type of care that you would want to receive or have withheld when you are in a compromised physical state:
    • When and under what circumstances should life-sustaining measures be taken;
    • When and under what circumstances would you want specific types of life-sustaining care (CPR, ventilation, feeding tubes, antibiotics) withheld;
    • Whether you want to serve as a donor for any/all useful organs, tissues, or other body parts upon your death.
    • Whether there are particular circumstances that would require deviations from these general guidelines (your age, a given likelihood of a reversal of your current state, etc
    • Whether you have strong views about dying in a health-care facility or if you wish to be in an alternate setting such as home (as this can inform some decisions about comfort care)
  3. Decide who would best be able to communicate your wishes and make decisions based on your values, previous decisions, and all available data about the prognosis for your ongoing quality of life.
  4. Complete the forms (getting them notarized if necessary), speak with your selected proxy about your wishes, and keep copies of the documents with your other important legal documents.


What if my circumstances change or I change my mind?

It is possible that circumstances around your health (or that of your health care proxy) could change. You can change any aspect of your advanced directive—adjusting anything within your living will or selecting a different health care proxy—at any time or at any reason. Simply complete and notarize a new document from your state.


Where else can I find help?

In addition to the resources on this website, we highly recommend the book Finish Strong by Barbara Coombs Lee or the Advanced Planning Toolkit from Compassion and Choices, both of which have ample food for thought and a host of practical tools to help clarify your values and end of life wishes.


Download our Conversation guide







Subscribe now For Your personalized planning path