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Health Care Advance Directives: A Beginner’s Guide

This post is coauthored by Barbara Bavis, instructional librarian, and Robert Brammer, senior legal reference specialist

Planning for end of life or critical care is not a favorite topic of conversation, but it is an important one. Having health care advance directives in place can help ensure your wishes are made clear to your loved ones and physicians when you are not in position to advocate for the type of care you wish to receive.

Harry Howard's Latest Success: The Doctor's Warm Reception. A Detail from a Color Lithograph by The U.S. Printing Co. (Created 1899). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a29286

Harry Howard’s Latest Success: The Doctor’s Warm Reception. A Detail from a Color Lithograph by The U.S. Printing Co. (Created 1899). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a29286

What is a health care advance directive? The American Bar Association’s Commission on Law and Aging defines a health care advance directive as “the generic term for any document that gives instructions about your health care and/or appoints someone to make medical treatment decisions for you if you cannot make them for yourself.”

Typically, health care advance directives take two main forms: a living will and a durable power of attorney for health care, although the titles for these documents might vary from state to state.  Living wills are defined as documents “in which you state your wishes about life-sustaining medical treatment if you are terminally ill, permanently unconscious, or in the end-stage of a fatal illness.” Alternately, a durable power of attorney for health care is defined as a “document in which you appoint someone else to make medical treatment decisions for you if you cannot make them for yourself. The person you name is called your agent, proxy, representative, attorney-in-fact, or surrogate. You can also include instructions for decision-making.”

In this post we will provide some resources that will help you communicate your preferences regarding medical treatment.  When completing your research, please keep in mind that the law regarding health care advance directives is very dependent on state law.

Web Sites

There are many helpful online resources for those interested in creating health care advance directives.  We have collected a selection of resources below:

We also suggest using the Guide to Law Online, created by the Law Library of Congress, to find more information about laws and regulations, as well as legal research guides, for your state.

Print Resources

If you are able to visit your local public law library, there are also several print-based resources that can provide guidance—and, in some resources, even sample forms—regarding different health care advance directives.  Some of the print resources in the Library of Congress collection include:

As we have noted in previous Beginner’s Guides, you can find these resources in a library near you by using the WorldCat catalog. When you select a resource from your search results list in WorldCat, scroll down to the “Find a copy in my library” section, enter your zip code (or city and country, for those not in the United States), and WorldCat will list the closest libraries to you that own that resource.  You can then click on the library’s name to be taken to the resource’s entry in that library’s catalog.

We hope the information in this Beginner’s Guide helps you get started in your research regarding advance health care directives.  If, after reviewing the information above, you still have further research questions, please feel free to use our Ask a Librarian service.

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