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The difference between a living will and a medical power of attorney

by | Feb 20, 2024 | Advance Health Care Directives, Health Care Proxy |

A living will and a health care proxy, which both fall under the umbrella term “advance healthcare directive,” sound like they cover the same situations, but there are key distinctions.

Living wills

These are your detailed, comprehensive written instructions for what life-saving care you want or do not want if you are unconscious or incapacitated, with no chance of recovery; sometimes called a “persistent vegetative state”.  Key points in this document include if you wish to be resuscitated, kept on life support, or allowed to die naturally.

The exception is if you become incapacitated but are not in an irreversible vegetative state. In this case, the living will does not apply and your doctors will decide how to proceed, and the health care proxy would come into play.

Health care proxy

This is an individual that you have designated to make medical decisions on your behalf if you become incapacitated. Ideally, you and your health care proxy should have discussed your wishes while you are still healthy so they won’t need to improvise your healthcare decisions in an emergency.

That said, it’s best also to have a living will so there’s no chance of misunderstanding or miscommunication. The health care proxy must understand the wishes in your living will and be able to follow them. Any inconsistency can result in unfavorable outcomes. But with both contingencies firmly in place, you can be confident your wishes will be honored to the letter.

While this information is accurate for New York, some states do not recognize a health care proxy; only a living will. If you spent significant time in other states, having both a living will, and a health care proxy becomes even more important.

Finally, people sometimes confuse “health care proxy,” who makes medical decisions on behalf of an incapacitated person, and “power of attorney,” which is a term usually used in a “durable power of attorney” In that case, this person’s responsibilities are more comprehensive, as they may have to take control of legal and financial other critical decisions if you become incapacitated.


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