Health Care Proxy vs. Living Will

black male doctor in gray scrubs typing on computer

A Health Care Proxy and a Living Will allow you to control your medical care wishes in the event you cannot communicate them, yourself. While both legally-binding documents carry out your health care decisions, they fulfill different purposes. The Health Care Proxy serves as your voice if you are unable to express your choices while a Living Will dictates your treatment preferences. A Gentreo Health Care Proxy fulfills both purposes because within it you are able to appoint your health care agent(s) and express your treatment preference, if you wish to do so.

Let’s break down each document.

Health Care Proxy

Also known as a Power of Attorney for Medical Care, a Health Care Proxy is both a document and a person you designate to make your medical decisions if you are deemed incapacitated. For example, if you have a serious illness or are involved in an accident and become powerless to make choices, the Health Care Proxy kicks into effect and the designee has the legal authority to make decisions and judgments on your behalf as stated within the health care proxy document

Your Health Care Proxy has authority to:

  • Consult with your doctors 
  • Make decisions about tests, procedures, care, and treatments
  • Decline or request life support, if you have granted that authority
  • Access your medical records
  • Apply for Medicare or health insurance
  • Decide where you will receive care, including hospice or a nursing home

Doctors and other healthcare providers are bound by the Proxy’s directives, ensuring your wishes will be honored. The Health Care Proxy must follow your choices as they are laid out in the Living Will. Additionally, the Proxy can have latitude to form a decision based on prior discussions with you and knowledge of what type of care you prefer.

Who can be my Proxy? 

A spouse/partner, sibling, adult child, parent or relative can serve as your Health Care Proxy. Generally, you cannot choose a healthcare facility worker, a person under 18, or your doctor. Some states have other restrictions.

It’s imperative that the person you choose as your Proxy understands your preferences for life support or life-sustaining treatments. The Proxy should be a person you trust and knows your values.

Living Will

In this document, you list the types of medical treatments and procedures you want or do not want in given situations. It allows you to control your future health care choices when you are in a condition where you cannot make your own decisions. As with the Health Care Proxy, the Living Will takes effect when you are determined to be incapacitated.

Consider these questions when drafting your Living Will:

  1. Would you want treatment if you have a progressive illness or are permanently unconscious?
  2. What is your definition of quality of life?
  3. At what point would you want to stop prolonging life?

A Living Will is not only for emergency situations. You can also express your directives for end-of-life treatments if there is no hope of recovery or you are in the late stages of a mentally debilitating illness like Alzheimer’s Disease.

In the Living Will, indicate your treatment choices for:

  • Life support
  • Artificial nutritional feeding
  • Mechanical ventilation
  • Irreversible coma
  • Organ donations
  • Providing extraordinary life sustaining procedures
  • Palliative care

A Living Will should not be confused with a Last Will and Testament. The latter allows for conveying your last wishes for bequeathing assets to heirs and choosing a guardian for minor children upon your passing.

Not all states accept a Living Will

Massachusetts is one of a few states that does not recognize a Living Will as a legal document. In these states, it is the Health Care Proxy document where you can include choices for medical treatment as well as name the designee to carry out your wishes. In New York, a Living Will is more of a guide and has no law governing it.

Make Your Wishes Known

Have a conversation with your family and doctors and spell out your health care choices. Store your documents in a digital vault where those of your choosing can have instant and easy access at any time. A copy should also be given to your doctor.

What Happens if I Don't Have These Documents?

If you do not have a Health Care Proxy and/or a Living Will and are clinically diagnosed as being mentally impaired and in need of life saving treatment, the healthcare facility would get a court order to appoint a guardian to act on your behalf. Doctors would be required to perform all necessary procedures to keep you alive. Without these documents, you could receive treatments you may not want and there could be a conflict within your family as to who should be authorized to make these decisions.

You Should Have Both

A Health Care Proxy and Living Will work hand-in-hand to make sure your health care wishes are carried out. These two legally binding documents should be part of your comprehensive estate plan. A Gentreo Health Care Proxy allows you to both appoint your health care agent(s) and express your treatment preferences, if you wish to do so.


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