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All About Advanced Directives

An advance directive is a document by which a person makes provision for health care decisions in the event that, in the future, he/she becomes unable to make those decisions. These documents are an integral part of every estate plan. There are two main advance directives that are a part of a complete estate plan, (1) the living will, and (2) the healthcare power of attorney. To some these documents can quickly become confusing and easy to conflate. However, one general difference is the scope of each document. The living will is limited to end-of-life/deathbed decisions on sustaining life artificially whereas the healthcare power of attorney covers all healthcare decisions.

It cannot be stressed heavily enough that these documents, while sometimes tough to come to terms with, in the long run will prevent your family much heartache and stress since they are put in place to make your wishes known. Below is a list of each document's distinguishing features and points to remember.

Living Will

  • It must first be pointed out that this document is completely separate from a last will and testament, which spells out how you wish your estate to be distributed.

  • Instead, this is a legal document setting forth your wishes concerning your decision on the use or non-use of artificial life-sustaining support when you are terminally ill or permanently unconscious. (Essentially a persistent vegetative state kept alive with a feeding tube.)

  • The living will always overrules the healthcare power of attorney.

  • Example: your healthcare power of attorney agent wants to prolong your life artificially but you signed a living will declaration stating you do not wish to be kept alive artificially when permanently unconscious.....the living will governs and artificial life support is not given.

  • Does not interfere with doctors providing care and issuing pain medication to ensure your last moments are pain free and comfortable.

  • For a real world example highlighting the importance of a living will (even for those who are young) see the Terri Schiavo case.

Healthcare Power of Attorney

  • This document does two things:

  1. Enables an agent to obtain principal's healthcare information

  2. Enables an agent to make healthcare decisions on principal's behalf

  • ​This document is only effective if and only if the principal cannot make such decisions for him/herself

  • ​Examples: Principal involved in car accident and in temporary coma, Principal unresponsive due to a stroke

  • The Healthcare power of attorney does NOT overrule a living will if the principal has a living will

  • Requires the agent to make decisions that are consistent with your wishes

  • DOES NOT enable the agent to undertake principal's financial duties

  • Also known as a healthcare proxy.

As Ben Franklin famously said,"by failing to prepare, you are prepared to fail." There is never a better day to act than today. If you have any questions concerning these documents or are interested in completing these documents as part of your complete estate plan contact our office for a consultation today. or (513) 887-4560

Joseph M. Braun is an attorney in Hamilton, Ohio. He specializes in estate planning, probate, real estate, adoption law, and other general practice areas. You can connect with him by emailing: or liking him on Facebook


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