An advance directive establishes a legally binding outline of your healthcare wishes. Your family and any doctors treating you will follow your advance directive if you’re ever unable to speak for yourself or make your own medical decisions.

This ensures that you choose what care plans are best for you, even if you’re unable to participate in the conversation.

You can also change your advance directive if your health situation evolves. Advance directives can include instructions on preferences for hospital and home care, do not resuscitate (DNR) orders, and more.

Read on to learn more about the best time to make an advance directive, exactly what’s in it, and how to get started on the drafting process.

You might think of an advance directive as something people set up in their later years, but it’s actually better not to wait.

Advance directives are highly recommended for adults managing chronic health conditions, including mental or behavioral health conditions, but they’re a good idea for all adults.

While we may all hope to remain healthy as we get older, a medical emergency that leaves you unable to make your own healthcare decisions could happen at any time. An advance directive helps ensure you’re prepared for this situation.

An advance directive includes two primary documents that will help you get the best healthcare even when you’re unable to make your own decisions. The parts of an advance directive are detailed below:

  • Living will. A living will lets your family and any medical professionals treating you know which life-sustaining or lifesaving medical services you want to receive. It only goes into effect if certain criteria are met. The living will may include medical services like:
  • Healthcare power of attorney. A healthcare power of attorney, sometimes called a healthcare proxy, is a family or other trusted person you select to make medical decisions for you and speak on your behalf. The power of attorney document gives the person you select this authority and allows you to write out directions.

Each state has its own laws about advance directives. You can choose to use a lawyer or estate planner to help you create an advance directive, but you don’t have to. Many people choose to create an advance directive on their own.

Your advance directive will be legally binding as long as you sign it with either two adult witnesses or in front of a notary.

You can find free advance directive forms online. Local libraries, senior centers, and legal services centers also often have free forms you can use if you don’t have access to a printer.

You can check this guide to see the exact requirements in your state.

DNR stands for “do not resuscitate.” A DNR order is a document that tells doctors, nurses, paramedics, and other medical professionals that you do not want CPR or other lifesaving measures performed if your heart stops or if you stop breathing. That might sound a lot like a living will, but there are some differences.

A DNR is signed off on by a physician. This means that the DNR is a medical order. It gives instructions to emergency medical personnel and tells them not to perform lifesaving care.

Without a DNR, paramedics and other first responders will always attempt CPR and other lifesaving care when responding to an event such as a heart attack.

Additionally, a living willing details the medical care you want or do not want in other situations, such as if you need intubation.

You can make a DNR part of your advance directive. Talk with your doctor about establishing a DNR. They sign off on the form so that you can add it to your advance directive. A DNR is not official without a doctor’s signature.

An advance directive can protect you in the event of a health emergency and can help ensure you get the right short- or long-term medical care.

The instructions in an advance directive allow you to make choices now, while you’re still able to. This means that if you’re ever unable to make your own medical decisions, there’s a legally binding document establishing your pre-written wishes.

You can also include a power of attorney and give them the authority to speak for you when you’re unable to make your own choices.

The documents in an advance directive allow you to select if you’d like care such as CPR, IV treatments, oxygen through a ventilator, and comfort care like pain medication. Some people also choose to add a DNR order.

Each state has its own rules and regulations for advance directives. It’s a good idea to check out the rules in your state and to get an advance directive set up. Even if you’re young and healthy, having a document in place will ensure you’re prepared if an emergency ever arises.