The Difference Between a Living Will and a Medical Power of Attorney

Understanding the Differences between a Living Will and a Medical Power of Attorney

As a part of the estate planning process, you want to take steps to protect yourself and ensure that your wishes are followed with respect to the medical care you receive, should you be unable to make your own decisions. There are two types of documents that address this contingency—a living will and a medical power of attorney. Each serves a somewhat different function and both can be implemented in the same estate plan.

The Medical Power of Attorney

The medical power of attorney, also known as a designation of patient advocate, actually transfers authority to make medical decisions to another person. Though it may specify some of the limits of the decision-making, it typically does not go into detail about the types of procedures that will or will not be acceptable. As a general rule, persons executing a medical power of attorney will meet with the designee in advance and carefully explain what type of care will be acceptable.

Because the medical power of attorney actually delegates or transfers decision-making authority, it generally has no effect unless triggered by specific events (which are usually described in the document itself). For example, a medical power of attorney may state that it only goes into effect if a licensed physician or mental health professional states in writing that the person named in the document lacks capacity to make his or her own decisions.

The Living Will

A living will, on the other hand, does not convey any authority or responsibility to anyone, but provides specific instructions to medical professionals regarding the types of treatment a person want. As a practical matter, living wills generally address life-saving measure and typically advise doctors and medical personnel that certain technologies are (or are not) to be used to sustain life. For example, a living will may state that the patient is not to be kept alive by artificial means, and may include a DNR (do not resuscitate) order, which precludes the use of certain technologies to bring a person back to life.

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