What is an Advance Directive?

When it comes to the law, there are a lot of different words and legal jargon that gets thrown around. Oftentimes this language can go straight over the heads of all the people who didn’t spend years learning what they all mean. One of those legal terms that you may be unfamiliar with is “advance directive.”

Advance Directives are also called “living wills.” A living will allows you to document your wishes regarding any medical treatments you do or don’t want at the end of your life. However, before it can do anything official, two doctors must be able to certify that:

  • You cannot make medical decisions
  • You are in the medical condition specified in the state’s living will law (such as “terminal illness” or “permanent unconsciousness.”)
  • Other requirements may apply, depending on the state.

Also, a medical power of attorney (also known as a healthcare proxy) allows you to appoint someone you trust as your healthcare agent (or surrogate decision maker), and that person is allowed to make medical decisions on your behalf.

Before a medical power of attorney can be effective, though, a person’s doctor must come to the conclusion that the person cannot make his or her own medical decisions. To add to that:

  • If someone regains the ability to make decisions, the appointed agent cannot continue to make those decisions on the person’s behalf.
  • A great many states have more requirements that apply just to decisions about life-sustaining medical treatments.
  • As an example, before your agent can refuse said life-sustaining treatment on your behalf, a second physician is needed to confirm your doctor’s initial assessment that you are, in fact, incapable of making such decisions yourself.

Some other things you should know:

  • These advance directives are legally valid all throughout the country. And while a lawyer isn’t necessary to fill out an advance directive, the document becomes legally valid as soon as you sign it in front of the required witnesses. The laws that govern these directives vary across the states, so it’s important to finish it and sign advance directives that go along with the law in your state. What’s more—advance directives often have different names in different states.
  • EMT’s cannot honor living wills or medical powers of attorney. Once the emergency personnel has been summoned, they are required to do whatever necessary to stabilize a person in order to transfer them to the hospital, both from accident sites and from a home or other facility. After the physician fully evaluates the person’s injuries and condition, and finds any underlying conditions, advance directives can take effect.
  • The advance directive in one state does not necessarily apply to another state. Some states do recognize advance directives from another state; others only do so as long as they are similar to the state’s own law; and some do not have an answer to the question. The best option then becomes to complete advance directives in all the states you spend copious amounts of time in if you do such a thing.
  • Advance directives don’t expire. It remains in effect until you change it. If you complete a new one, it invalidates the old one.
  • Finally, you should make sure and review your advance directives from time to time to make sure they still reflect your wishes. If you want to make changes in an advance directive once you’ve already filled it out, you should instead fill out an entirely new document.