Living Will vs Power of Attorney: Understand the Differences
- Compare living wills vs powers of attorney and know when to use each one. Learn how to make sure your wishes are followed, even if you're incapacitated.
As you get older, you may worry about what medical decisions will be made on your behalf if you're incapacitated. You can complete documents to ensure your wishes are followed if the worst happens. However, different documents have different uses. It's important to understand the difference between living wills and powers of attorney, so you know when to use each one and when you should have both.
The Difference Between a Living Will vs a Power of Attorney
The essential difference between a living will and a power of attorney is who the document gives power to. A living will explicitly states your wishes concerning medical decisions and, as a legal document, should be followed. On the other hand, a power of attorney authorizes someone else to make decisions on your behalf.
What Is a Living Will?
A living will is also called an advance directive. It spells out your end-of-life decisions, especially regarding the following matters:
- This declares whether you want to be intubated or resuscitated. You can include a Do-Not-Resuscitate (DNR) order in your living will or file it as a standalone document.
- Palliative care and pain management. This lists the types of pain management you want to use or avoid, whether you want to die at home and any other issues surrounding your comfort and pain management.
- Tube Feeding. This states whether you want to be tube fed for nutrition if you can no longer eat.
- State whether you want a mechanical ventilator used if you stop breathing and how long it should be used.
- Organ donation. You can specify whether you want to donate your organs and tissues for transplant.
- You can specify if you want antibiotics and antivirals to be used to fight infections at the end of your life.
Living wills tend to be limited to deathbed concerns and are used if you have a terminal illness or injury, such as a brain tumor or head trauma. They're only valid if you can no longer communicate your wishes.
What Is a Power of Attorney?
A power of attorney nominates someone you trust, known as the proxy or agent, to make decisions on your behalf. Powers of attorney can be very broad or narrow. Each one must state what the proxy can take control of, such as finances, property, business and healthcare.
Unlike living wills, general power of attorney documents typically become invalid when you're incapacitated. If you want it to start when you become incapacitated, or continue functioning after incapacitation, you must ensure it's a durable power of attorney.
Medical Powers of Attorney
Many people think of a medical power of attorney when comparing a living will vs. a power of attorney. These documents give someone else permission to make medical decisions on your behalf. Like living wills, they come into effect when you're incapacitated.
Medical powers of attorney are generally broader than living wills. These documents don't just deal with end-of-life decisions. Instead, they give someone permission to make all medical decisions for you if you're unable to make your own decisions. This may cover times when you're unconscious due to surgery or an accident, but they can also be used if you have a brain injury, dementia or a similar condition that impacts your mental capacity.
Your medical proxy should know your healthcare wishes, so it's important to talk honestly and openly to them before signing the document. You should also nominate someone who lives close by, so they can be reached if needed.
When Do These Documents Become Valid?
Both living wills and medical powers of attorney are only valid when you're incapacitated. This is immediate if you're rendered unconscious by an accident. However, if there's any question about your mental capacity, a medical professional will assess whether you're capable of making your own decisions. If you can express your wishes, your medical team will follow those wishes.
Power of attorney documents that aren't healthcare-related work differently. The date or conditions of when they start must be stated explicitly in the document, and end dates are often included as well. Often powers of attorney are used to manage finances or business when someone is traveling, ensuring there are firm boundaries around when an agent can act for you.
Can Anyone Override a Living Will or Power of Attorney?
A living will is a legal document meant to guide doctors and your family. As such, it can't be overridden by anyone, and your doctor will follow any wishes stated in the document. If you have a medical power of attorney, your proxy should follow your wishes. Wishes stated in the living will take precedence, with your agent stepping in for decisions not covered by that document.
You can revoke your power of attorney at any time, as long as you're of sound mind. If you're no longer of sound mind, your friends and family can challenge a power of attorney. They may wish to challenge it if they believe the agent hasn't been acting in your best interests or the agent is unable to act on your behalf due to illness or incapacity. If a power of attorney is challenged, a court will decide whether to terminate the proxy's authority. It's best to include an alternate agent in your power of attorney document, so there's someone to take over in these cases.