What Is an Advance Directive? Planning with a Living Will and Health Care Proxy

Advance directives tell your loved ones and medical providers what your treatment preferences are when you can't.
Dalia Ramirez
By Dalia Ramirez 
Updated
Edited by Tina Orem

Many or all of the products featured here are from our partners who compensate us. This influences which products we write about and where and how the product appears on a page. However, this does not influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own. Here is a list of our partners and here's how we make money.


The investing information provided on this page is for educational purposes only. NerdWallet, Inc. does not offer advisory or brokerage services, nor does it recommend or advise investors to buy or sell particular stocks, securities or other investments.

Nerdy takeaways
  • Advance directives give you more control over your care and help loved ones advocate for you in emergencies.

  • Some advance directives include do-not-resuscitate orders, comfort care wishes and organ donation instructions.

  • The legal requirements for advance directives vary by state.

Nerdy takeaways
  • Advance directives give you more control over your care and help loved ones advocate for you in emergencies.

  • Some advance directives include do-not-resuscitate orders, comfort care wishes and organ donation instructions.

  • The legal requirements for advance directives vary by state.

What is an advance directive?

An advance directive is a legal document that provides instructions for your medical care or indicates who can make decisions for you if you cannot communicate. Advance directives include living wills and durable power of attorney designations for health care. The legal standards vary by state.

Your estate attorney or estate planning software can help you cater your documents to your state’s requirements, or you can search and download your state’s form online.

» Getting started with estate planning? Here are the basics

Types of advance directives

Living will

Living wills specify the medical treatment you want — or don’t want — if you’re unable to communicate. They can include preferences for resuscitation, ventilation, feeding tubes, comfort care, and postmortem organ and medical research donations

.

Living wills follow a general template, but you can add more detail regarding specific medical situations. For example, if you’re at risk for cardiac arrest and don’t want CPR performed, you can state that in a living will.

Durable medical power of attorney or health care proxy

A durable medical power of attorney or health care proxy gives a trusted person authority to make medical decisions on your behalf if you can’t communicate. This person can advocate for you in a hospital and ensure your preferences are honored.

This type of power of attorney should be durable, meaning it stays in place if you become incapacitated. Having a proxy is especially helpful if medical standards change or you’re in a situation your living will doesn’t specifically cover

John Hopkins Medicine. Advance Directives. Accessed Sep 21, 2023.
.

Combination document

You may need both a living will and a health care proxy, particularly if you have a non-life-threatening health event.

A combined advance directive document can connect your living will and power of attorney designation with other preferences for comfort and end-of-life processes.

How to make an advance directive

Here are three different ways to create an advance directive.

  1. Find a free or inexpensive form. 

    • The American Bar Association compiles links to state-specific advance directive forms.

    • AARP, an interest group for people over 50, and Everplans — a service that helps people organize their essential documents — offer links to free forms for each state. Be sure to confirm with an estate planning attorney that your document complies with the rules in your state

      AARP. Advance Directive Forms. Accessed Nov 21, 2023.

    • Five Wishes, a website created by the nonprofit organization Aging with Dignity, offers an interactive printable advance directive form, which includes proxy and living will documentation plus added directives for comfort, prayer and burial for $5. A fully online version costs $15

      Five Wishes. For Myself. Accessed Nov 21, 2023.

    • Prepare for Your Care, an online resource that helps people make medical decisions, offers free forms with clear instructions and specific questions about your quality of life and values

      Prepare For Your Care. PREPARE Advance Directive. Accessed Nov 21, 2023.
      .

  2. Hire an estate planning attorney. An estate planning attorney can help you create an estate plan, including advance directives.

  3. Use estate planning software. Make sure the product you choose explains how to make the document legally binding for your state and includes all the possible options you need. Many online will makers include living wills and health care proxy designations with the purchase of a will or trust package.

Here’s what to do once you’ve completed your forms:

  1. Sign your documents. Some states require you to sign your forms in front of witnesses to make them legally valid, and in some, you’ll have to get the documents notarized

    CaringInfo.org. What is an Advance Directive?. Accessed Nov 20, 2023.
    .

  2. Give copies to your doctor and health care proxy, plus close family members and your attorney, if you have one. Ask your doctor to add the forms to your electronic health record so other providers can access them in an emergency.

  3. Consider carrying a card in your wallet, such as the one from the American Hospital Association, with information on your advance directives.

  4. You can officially register your advance medical directive in some states, though it’s not required

    .

Advertisement
Trust & Will - Will

GoodTrust

Nolo’s Quicken WillMaker - WillMaker

Price (one-time)

Will: one-time fee of $199 per individual or $299 for couples. Trust: one-time fee of $499 per individual or $599 for couples.

Price (one-time)

$149 for estate plan bundle. Promotion: NerdWallet users can save up to $10.

Price (one-time)

None

Price (annual)

$19 annual membership fee.

Price (annual)

$39

Price (annual)

$99 to $209 per year.

Access to attorney support

Yes

Access to attorney support

No

Access to attorney support

No

How to change an advance directive

You can change your advance directives at any time as long as you’re of sound mind. Here are some tips.

  • Create a new document rather than amend the original. Completing a new directive will usually automatically revoke your previous version.

  • Update your family, doctor and attorney with the new information and destroy the original documents.

  • You can pay a fee to make changes and register a new form if you’ve registered your advance directive with your state.

  • Review your advance directive around every 10 years, or if you receive a new medical diagnosis or change your marital status.

Compare online will makers

Advertisement
Company
NerdWallet
rating
Price
(one-time)
Price
(annual)
Access to
attorney support
Learn more
Ease of use
Trust & Will - Will
Trust & Will - Will
Get started

on Trust & Will's website

Will: one-time fee of $199 per individual or $299 for couples. Trust: one-time fee of $499 per individual or $599 for couples. $19 annual membership fee.Yes
Get started

on Trust & Will's website

Comprehensive services
Nolo’s Quicken WillMaker - WillMaker
Nolo’s Quicken WillMaker - WillMaker
Get started

on Nolo's website

None$99 to $209 per year.No
Get started

on Nolo's website

Digital Assets
GoodTrust
GoodTrust
Get started

on GoodTrust's website

$149 for estate plan bundle. Promotion: NerdWallet users can save up to $10.$39No
Get started

on GoodTrust's website

State-specific legal advice
LegalZoom - Last Will
LegalZoom - Last Will
Get started

on LegalZoom's website

Will: $199 for Basic, $299 for Premium with attorney assist. Trust: $499 for Basic, $599 for Premium with attorney assist.$199 per year for attorney assistance after the first year.Yes
Get started

on LegalZoom's website

Get more smart money moves – straight to your inbox
Sign up and we’ll send you Nerdy articles about the money topics that matter most to you along with other ways to help you get more from your money.