Which is better: a living will or a durable power of attorney for health care?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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These are actually two different things, so we recommend that you have both. A living will is a document with instructions you make directly to your doctor about what kind of care you want if you should become unable to make decisions about your healthcare (such as a coma from a car accident or dementia). A durable power of attorney for Heath care (DPA) is a document where you appoint someone you trust, such as a relative or a friend, to make medical decisions for you if you are no longer able to make them for yourself. If you have a living will, your proxy (also called a ‘health care proxy,’ an ‘attorney in fact,’ an ‘agent,’ or a ‘representative’) will make decisions you haven’t covered in your living will. If you have not made a living will, your proxy will make all your medical decisions for you.

States often have forms for both living wills and DPAs. Several states, like California, now have a document called a health care Directive that combines both of these. Whatever document you decide to use, make sure that it is consistent, describes treatment choices in a variety of situations, and names someone to make decisions for you in case you are unable to make them for yourself.

Each state has requirements about how living wills and durable powers of attorney are to be created. These rules usually require a certain number of witnesses and often do not allow certain people (like people working for your care facility) to be witnesses. Be sure that you follow the rules of your state in creating these documents so that your wishes will be carried out.

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