Healthcare Proxies Vs. Living Wills

By Dennis Masino

It is important to communicate with your doctor when medical care must be administered. Being able to convey your wishes and make decisions is the key to controlling what form of treatment and care you receive. An advance directive, such as a living will, makes it possible for you to put your wishes in writing ahead of time, so they can be followed if you are too sick or injured to consult with your doctor. A health care proxy, another form of advance directive, allows you to appoint someone to make health care decisions for you.

Advance Directives

Advance directives are legal documents that allow you to plan, in advance, for future medical care or make end-of-life decisions for yourself in the event an illness or injury prevents you from communicating with the doctor. Some advance care directives, such as a living will or do-not-resuscitate order, are written declarations of your wishes and the decisions you have made. Health care proxies and powers of attorney for health care are advance directives, but they do not state your wishes or decisions. Instead, they allow you to appoint a person to make medical care decisions for you.

Living Will

A living will is an advance directive in which you state your wishes regarding future end-of-life decisions and medical care. For example, you can decide if you want or don't want mechanical respiration, feeding tubes, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), or antibiotics and medications for pain. Living wills must be in writing and are usually signed by you and two witnesses. Some states have laws that specify the form of the document and number of witnesses who must sign the document with you.

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Health Care Proxy

A health care proxy is also an advance directive, but unlike a living will, it does not express your wishes concerning medical care or end-of-life decisions. Instead, it allows you to designate another person, called the agent or proxy, to make health care decisions when you are unable to do so. Some state laws refer to documents that appoint a proxy as durable powers of attorney for health care, while others call them health care proxies.


Having both a living will and a health care proxy will resolve issues that can arise when a person has only one of the advance directives. A living will may not address all possible treatments or procedures that doctors consider necessary, but the agent or proxy could make the decision based on what she knows to be the beliefs and preferences of the patient. Having both documents would also help where the agent is not present or, though available, is unsure about what the patient would want in a given situation. Either the doctors or, if one is present, the agent could refer to the living will for guidance. Forms for living wills and health care proxies are available online through legal document providers.

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