Types of Health Care Directives

Learn how each of these documents helps you get the medical care you want

Health care directives allow you to inform medical professionals and family members about what kind of care you want when you can't communicate those wishes yourself. This article reviews several types of health care directives. The names for these documents depend on the state in which you live, but they each let you leave instructions about the type of health care you want to receive.

Learn what your state calls these documents in Health Care Directives in Your State.

Living Will

This document -- also known as a health care declaration -- bears no relation to the conventional will or living trust used to leave property at death. It's a document that lets you state what type of medical treatment you do or do not wish to receive if you are too ill or injured to direct your own care. (Among other things, you can use it to be sure doctors do -- or do not -- "pull the plug.") The document may have a different name in your state (it's often called a "declaration"), but you'll recognize it as the place where you write down your specific wishes about types of medical care.

For more information, see Nolo's article What Do My Living Will and Power of Attorney for Health Care Cover?

Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care

This document, also known as a medical power of attorney, allows you to name a trusted person to make medical decisions for you if you are unable to communicate on your own. The person you name to make these decisions is usually called your agent or attorney-in-fact.

You can give your agent the authority to oversee the wishes you've set out in your health care declaration, as well as the power to make other necessary decisions about health care matters. Some states combine the declaration and durable power of attorney into a single form, most often called an "advance health care directive."

For more information, see Nolo's article Choosing Your Health Care Agent.

Advance Directives

In your power of attorney for health care, you can give your agent the authority to oversee the wishes you've set out in your health care declaration, as well as the power to make other necessary decisions about health care matters. Some states combine the declaration and durable power of attorney into a single form, most often called an "advance health care directive."

Learn whether your state combines these documents into one in What Health Care Directives Are Called in Your State.

Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) Order

If a medical emergency occurs, a DNR order alerts emergency personnel that you do not wish to receive cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). DNR orders are sometimes made to supplement other health care directives, usually by those who are already critically ill and feel strongly that they do not want to receive life-prolonging treatment when close to death.

If you are in the hospital, you can ask your doctor to add a DNR order to your medical record. If you are not hospitalized, you can make what's called a prehospital DNR order to keep nearby in case paramedics are called to your home or care facility.

Learn more about DNR Orders.

POLST Forms

In most states, you have yet another option for setting out your wishes -- a Physicians Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment (POLST) form. POLST forms allow you to wishes for care in a medical emergency. Compared to a DNR order, you can use a POLST form to provide more detail about the kind of care you would like to recieve. For example, you can use a POLST form to state your wishes about intubation, antibiotic use, and feeding tubes.

Learn more about POLST Forms on Nolo.com.

Health Care Directive Terminology

The documents used to state your wishes for health care go by many names. Here’s a chart to help you sort through the terminiology.

Term Also Called What It Means
Living Will Directive to Physicians, Health Care Declaration, Medical Directive, Health Care Directive A legal document in which you state your wishes about life support and other kinds of medical treatments. The document takes effect if you can't communicate your own health care wishes.
Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care Medical Power of Attorney, Power of Attorney for Health Care, Designation of Surrogate, Patient Advocate Designation A legal document in which you give another person permission to make medical decisions for you if you are unable to make those decisions yourself.
Advance Health Care Directive Any of the documents discussed above may be called an advance health care directive; the term most often refers to a legal document that includes both a health care declaration and a durable power of attorney for health care. This type of combined form is currently used in more than one-third of the states.
Do-Not-Resuscitate (DNR) Order DNR Form, DNR Directive, Comfort One A medical order or form, usually signed by a doctor, that documents your wish not to receive CPR or other invasive resuscitation techniques if you stop breathing or your heart stops beating.
Physician Order for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) Provider Order for Life-Sustaining Treatment, Physician orders for Scope of Treatment (POST), Medical Orders for Scope of Treatment (MOST), Medical Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (MOLST), Clinician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (COLST), Transportable Physician Orders for Patient Preferences (TPOPP) A medical order signed by a doctor or other qualified health care professional. A POLST form is used in health care settings to document your instructions for medical care at the end of life. It is not a substitute for an Advance Health Care Directive.
Attorney-in-Fact for Finances Agent for Finances The person you name in your durable power of attorney for finances to make financial decisions for you if you cannot make them yourself.

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