How to Prepare Your Own Advance Directives

An advance directive is a legal document that ordinary people can complete to explain the kinds of medical treatments they would wish to receive, or not receive, when they can no longer speak for themselves.

Each state has its own laws defining the form advance directives can take and what medical decisions they can address. One common form is the living will, which can specify your preferences about certain kinds of life-sustaining treatments. Another is the durable power of attorney (otherwise referred to as health care proxy or agent), which names a trusted family member or friend to speak for you if you are unable to speak for yourself.

Because it is impossible to predict the medical conditions and other circumstances you might face in the future, experts believe that the durable power of attorney is likely to be more flexible and helpful. But only if the person you name knows your values and feelings about potential medical treatments and quality of life.

The following simple steps can help in the process of completing an advance directive1:

  • You do not need a lawyer to prepare advance directives.
  • Complete a state-specific advance directive (see below for some options).
  • Make sure that your physician and loved ones are aware of your specific requests.
  • Ask someone else to look over the documents so that you can be sure you have filled them out correctly.
  • Read all of the instructions carefully to be sure that you have included all of the necessary information and that your documents are witnessed properly.
  • Make several photocopies of the completed documents.
  • Keep the original documents in a safe but easily accessible place, and tell others where you put them; you can note on the photocopies the location where the originals are kept.
  • DO NOT KEEP YOUR ADVANCE DIRECTIVES IN A SAFE DEPOSIT BOX. Other people may need access to them.
  • Give photocopies to your healthcare proxy (agent), doctors and anyone else who might be involved with your healthcare.

One good source of free, downloadable advance directive forms is Caring Connections ( and click on Advance Directives).

Aging with Dignity offers a document called “Five Wishes,” which makes advance care planning more user-friendly, valid in 40 states and downloadable for $5 from

Other sources of advance directive forms to complete include your state medical society and most hospitals or other health care providers.

It is important to realize that no legal document can guarantee that your medical care will unfold exactly as you might have wished in a medical crisis. Advance directives can also be revoked at any time by a competent patient. Still, they can offer comfort by providing invaluable guidance for a time when it is needed most.