A living will and a medical power of attorney are two legal options to help you prepare for critical health situations requiring difficult medical decisions.

While they both address the same issue, they’re fundamentally different.

Here, we’ll compare living wills and power of attorney and discuss various situations where each of them might be suitable.

Key takeaways:

  • A living will specifies an individual’s preferences regarding life-prolonging measures and end-of-life medical care.
  • A medical power of attorney designates an agent who can make healthcare decisions on the principal’s behalf.
  • A living will contains your express instructions for medical treatment in life-threatening situations, while a healthcare proxy empowers an agent to make those decisions for you.

What is a living will?

A living will is an advance healthcare directive indicating what life-prolonging measures an individual wants in life-threatening situations and how long these should last.

A typical living will template will cover three primary factors.

  • Conditions for the principal’s resuscitation.
  • The principal’s preferences regarding life support usage.
  • The principal’s preference between euthanasia or natural death resulting from their medical condition.

The conditions in a living will only take effect if the individual is unconscious or incapable of rational decision-making and without a realistic chance of recovery.

This means a living will won’t apply if a person is incapacitated but not vegetative.

Instead, an attending medical professional may decide what to do.

What is a power of attorney?

A power of attorney is a document that empowers an agent to make decisions on behalf of a principal.

It grants them the authority to stand in the principal’s place and decide on matters in their stead.

Before using a power of attorney template, the principal should discuss their wishes with their agent.

They may also want to provide written specifics whose implementation the proxy will oversee when necessary.

In rare cases, the principal may leave these decisions to the agent’s judgment.

What is a healthcare proxy?

A health care proxy, or health care surrogate, is a specialized form of power of attorney, which gives authority to an agent to make medical decisions on behalf of an incapacitated principal.

The term “healthcare proxy” refers to the agent taking up the responsibility and not just the document designating the individual.

A healthcare proxy has the authority to make decisions only if the principal is in no condition to.

This may include when the person is unconscious, in a vegetative state, or medically incapable of making rational choices.

Is there a difference between a power of attorney and a medical power of attorney?

From the above definitions, it’s easy to identify the primary difference between a living will and a power of attorney.

But to clarify their differences, we’ll further explain what a power of attorney and a living will entail.

Two types of power of attorney exist.

The first and most typical is a financial or durable power of attorney.

As the name suggests, this allows an agent to make and execute business, economic, and legal decisions on behalf of the principal.

A durable power of attorney often comes into effect courtesy of a principal’s incapacitation — but not always.

In fact, a principal can decide to put this into effect at any time.

While a medical power of attorney also gives an agent authority to make decisions on behalf of the principal, this is only effective in specific medical circumstances.

In addition, a durable power of attorney typically gives an agent power over a principal’s:

  • Banking
  • Government benefits
  • Retirement plans
  • Taxes
  • Real estate
  • Legal advice and proceedings
  • Insurance considerations

A medical power of attorney, on the other hand, only applies to medical decisions and only takes effect when the principal is incapacitated and unable to decide the life-prolonging treatment they want.

As such, a health care power of attorney is similar to a living will in that they both encompass important medical choices (but this doesn’t eliminate the differences between them.)

What is the difference between medical power of attorney vs. living will?

When deciding between a living will vs healthcare power of attorney, you must understand how they differ.

A medical power of attorney differs from a living will in that the individual appoints a proxy to make decisions on their behalf instead of specifying their preferred medical choices.

A living will document also contains instructions from the principal on how they wish for medical practitioners to handle life-prolonging treatment.

On the other hand, a medical power of attorney empowers an agent to make such decisions.

Another primary difference between a healthcare power of attorney vs a living will is that medical professionals must rigidly follow the instructions specified by the patient in the latter.

These take precedence over the preferences of their primary caretakers or healthcare practitioners.

A medical power of attorney ultimately relies on the agent’s decision-making rather than anyone else’s.

What is the difference between living will vs. durable power of attorney?

Below are the primary differences between a living will and a durable power of attorney.

For a durable power of attorney:

  • A durable power of attorney involves business-related decisions and does not encompass medical decisions.
  • It appoints a proxy to make decisions on behalf of the principal.

For living wills:

  • A living will address medical decisions and emergencies where the principal is incapable of deciding what life-prolonging healthcare options they want.
  • The living will contain the patient’s expressly stated instructions for life-threatening medical situations.

Can any power of attorney override a living will?

A power of attorney cannot override a living will if the principal created this while they were of sound mind and fully comprehended their decisions.

The only exception is if the patient includes a condition in the living will that allows a proxy’s decision to override theirs.

As such, in a durable power of attorney for health care vs living will situation, the latter takes precedence under normal circumstances.

Of course, the principal must understand how to sign a power of attorney to ensure the document’s validity.

What is the difference between a living will a healthcare proxy?

Below are some differentiating characteristics of a healthcare proxy and living will.

Living will:

  • A living will is an advanced medical directive.
  • A living will contains an express statement of an individual’s medical wishes, which takes effect if they cannot communicate these.
  • The document is legally binding and healthcare providers must adhere to the patient’s instructions.

Healthcare proxy:

  • A healthcare proxy involves designating an agent to make decisions based on the principal’s wishes. It requires them to appoint a trusted individual to enforce these.
  • The document forces healthcare providers to abide by the instructions of the proxy.

Choose the right directive to ensure you always get the best care

The choice of a living will vs. power of attorney is often difficult as both options have pros and cons.

But for those who are 100% certain of the measures they’d wish for healthcare providers to use while they were incapacitated, a living will may be best.

On the other hand, you may opt to use a medical power of attorney template instead, appointing a proxy to carry out your decisions and implement these on your behalf.

Regardless, both options can be useful for medical emergencies that require drastic choices to be made.

You can use PandaDoc to eSign either document and make it legally binding.


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