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Writing an Advance Directive - Topic Overview

What is an advance directive?

An advance directive is a form that you fill out to describe the kinds of medical care you want to have if something happens to you and you can't speak for yourself. It tells your family and your doctor what to do if you're badly hurt or have a serious illness that keeps you from saying what you want.

What are the different types?

There are two main types of advance directives:

  • A living will tells your family and your doctor what kinds of treatment you want to receive as you near the end of your life and if you can no longer speak for yourself. A living will is also called a treatment directive.
  • A medical power of attorney lets you name a person to make treatment decisions for you when you can't speak for yourself. This person is called a health care agent or health care proxy.

As long as you can still make your own decisions, your advance directive won't be used. You can stop or say "no" to treatment at any time.

How do you write an advance directive?

As you prepare your advance directive, you'll need to follow these four important steps:

  1. Get the living will and medical power of attorney forms for your state. Forms are different in each state, so be sure to get the right ones for where you live.
  2. Choose your health care agent. This should be a person you trust to make decisions for you.
  3. Fill out the forms, and have them witnessed as your state requires.
  4. Give copies to your family, your doctor, and your health care agent.

You can get the forms in a doctor's office, hospital, law office, state or local office for the aging, senior center, or nursing home. You can also get them online at or by calling 1-800-658-8898.

When you write your advance directive, think about the kinds of treatments that you do or don't want to receive if you get seriously hurt or ill.

Consider whether you want to:

  • Receive cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if your heart stops.
  • Be on a machine that pumps air into your lungs through a tube if you can't breathe on your own.
  • Be on a machine that cleans your blood if your kidneys stop working.
  • Be fed or get fluids through a tube if you can't eat or drink.
  • Take medicines to treat serious infections.

These are tough choices to make, but you don't have to make them alone. Take your time. Share your questions or concerns about what to include in your advance directive with your doctor or nurse, your lawyer, your family, or a friend.

What if you want to change what is in your advance directive?

You can change or cancel your advance directive at any time. Just fill out new forms and get rid of your existing forms. Or you can just let your family, your doctor, and your health care agent know about the change. If you change or create new forms, give everyone an updated copy. Don't just cross out or add new information unless it's only to change your address or phone number.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about advance directives:

Things to consider:

Ongoing concerns:


WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: March 12, 2014
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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