What is an Advance Directive?

Advance health care directive

An advance directive can serve as an essential legal document if your loved one unexpectedly suffers from a catastrophic injury. If your loved one is battling a terminal health condition, this legally binding document can also serve as an invaluable resource. 

Life can be unexpected, and it’s important to be prepared. As part of that preparation, keeping your affairs in order should consist of having an updated advance directive, especially if you or your loved one may be at higher risk of a catastrophic injury. 

Today, we’ll go over the details of advance directives and why they can serve as valuable tools during your family’s greatest time of need. 

table of contents

What Is an Advance Directive?

Life can be unpredictable, especially when you’re faced with medical emergencies unfolding when you least expect them. 

Whether it’s a medical event that is anticipated or a sudden traumatic injury, it’s essential to make sure the health and wellness decisions of your loved one are respected, especially when they cannot make those decisions themselves. This is where an advance directive comes in.

An advance directive is a legally binding document that allows an individual’s medical wishes to be executed even when that individual cannot speak for themselves. Those who have advance directives might not be able to make their own medical decisions because they are incapacitated, intubated, in the Intensive care unit, or otherwise do not have the capacity to represent themselves. 

The advance directive allows doctors to continue offering medical care the way that an individual would have wanted.

Living Will and Power of Attorney

Living Will

Advance directives are often referred to as “living wills” as they express an individual’s desire for medical treatment in the event they cannot speak for themselves. A living will outlines your desires for medical treatment in a detailed and specific manner. This can often include treatment you would like to receive and treatments you would like to avoid.

While medical advancement has allowed patients to utilize new and improved technology in the medical field, some individuals may not want to use such technology. Your living will allows you to express your desires regarding how you want to be medically treated. 

Power of Attorney 

A power of attorney works in tandem with a living will. As with a living will, a power of attorney is a legally binding document that outlines who will act on your behalf when it’s time to execute your living will. This individual is often referred to as a representative or an agent and will make healthcare decisions on your behalf based on your living will.

It’s essential to have a power of attorney for many reasons. During a medical event where an individual cannot speak for themselves, having a named representative helps alleviate the pressure other family members and loved ones might face. It also helps avoid any miscommunication, confusion, or conflict that might arise. 

When Is an Advance Directive Necessary?

An advance directive can be drawn up at any point during an individual’s life. However, it’s more common for advance directives to be drawn up later in life or when an individual is battling a critical health condition such as cancer. 

How Do I Find My Loved One’s Advance Directive?

man holding older mans hand in hospital

Your loved one may have previously expressed that they have an advance directive. Even if they have not mentioned this, it does not mean they don’t have one. Because of their sensitive nature, advance directives are typically stored in safe, out-of-reach locations. This can include the following: 

  • A personal or bank safe
  • Office Filing cabinets
  • Office desk drawers

Another good place to check for an advance directive is in your loved one’s will or insurance policy. 

Often, having these conversations before a medical emergency occurs is the best way to understand whether or not your loved one has an advance directive and where they store it. 

What Does an Advance Directive Cover?

Dealing with a catastrophic or traumatic injury can be challenging to navigate, whether or not it was an event that was anticipated. Having an advance directive in place can help alleviate some of the burdens as you and your family cope with the traumatic event. 


A well-written advance directive will typically include the following:

  • A living will 
  • A power of attorney
  • A named representative that will make medical decisions on behalf of your loved one
  • Outlining medical and end-of-life care treatments 

Utilizing other resources – including counseling, spiritual support, and literary insight – can help you navigate the grief and trauma that might arise from executing an advance directive. One popular resource has been the best-selling novel Unthinkable. Written by personal injury lawyer Kyle Bachus, this novel helps guide families confronting a catastrophic injury. 

Does an Advance Directive Designate a Decision Maker?

Within an advance directive, a durable healthcare power of attorney should be established. This names the representative who will be making the medical decisions for the individual who created the advance directive. 

A well-written healthcare power of attorney should also include a backup representative should the first choice be unavailable.  

The representatives chosen depend on the circumstances and the individual requiring an advance directive. Typically, representatives are the following: 

  •  Spouses
  •  Parents
  •  Siblings
  •  An adult child

Who Makes the Financial Decisions?

A living will and healthcare power of attorney do not detail who will deal with any financial decisions that will arise after a medical event or catastrophic injury. That is where a revocable living trust comes in. 

Under this document, an individual can appoint a representative to handle any and all financial decision-making that may arise following the catastrophic injury. This document allows a designated individual to do the following:

  • Access bank accounts
  • Pay medical bills
  • Transfer funds from one account to another
  • Make decisions regarding all other financial matters 

Possible End-Of-Life Care Decisions to Make 

An advance directive outlines different end-of-life care decisions and how those decisions should be applied in the case of a catastrophic injury. 

Typically, possible end-of-life care decisions include, but are not limited to, the following: 

  • Medical technology that should or should not be used
  • Medication that should be used and should be avoided
  • Whether or not tools like feeding machines and breathing tubes should be used
  • Whether an individual should be resuscitated
  • When and under what circumstances medical care should end
  • Whether family members can donate the organs of their loved one 
  • Outlining a healthcare power of attorney

Should I Seek Legal Representation If My Loved One Experienced a Catastrophic Injury?

justice gavel on a table

It can be a scary experience navigating a loved one’s catastrophic injury. As with anything in life, preparedness is key. Establishing a plan of action via an advance directive is one of the best ways to help alleviate some of the stress you and your loved ones will encounter. 

Working with a lawyer who is well-versed in catastrophic injury law and advance directives is one of the best ways to navigate the road ahead. For this reason, it can be helpful to seek the assistance of a professional.

Resources

Advance Care Planning: Health Care Directives | National Institute on Aging. (2018).
Living wills and advance directives for medical decisions – Mayo Clinic. (2022).
What Is an Advance Directive?. (2019).

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