How to set up an advance directive so that it works when you need it

Learn about advance directives before you start. Know your rights and the laws about advance directives in your state. You may wish to look into one or more of the resources we’ve shared here. Some key steps are:

  • Discuss your decisions and wishes with your spouse or partner, family members, close friends, your doctor, and/or your attorney. Telling those close to you about your end-of-life decisions will help ensure that your wishes are carried out.
  • Decide what you want, such as a living will, durable power of attorney for health care, and/or other advance health care instructions. Understand the meaning of each and the differences between them.
  • Decide who you want as your health care proxy or agent (decision-maker). This is one of the most important decisions you will make. Carefully choose someone you believe will be able to carry out your wishes even if they include DNR or denying other life-sustaining treatments. Talk with the person to be sure they’re OK with doing this for you and that they can understand your wishes.
  • If you have a durable power of attorney for health care, give a copy of your advance directive to your health care proxy and ask him or her to keep it in a safe place where it can be found quickly if needed. Give copies to family members who are likely to be nearby, and be sure they know who your proxy is.
  • If you want a living will, or if you’re writing detailed instructions, be specific about such things as CPR, breathing machines (ventilators or respirators), medicines to make your heart work, kidney dialysis, artificial feeding (tube or intravenous), and certain surgical procedures.
  • If you need help writing an advance directive, contact an attorney or one of the resources shared here. Attorneys may know about the laws in your state, but only you can make the decisions about your future care. Most people don’t need an attorney to write an advance directive.
  • Have one or more witnesses sign your advance directive (or whatever is required in your state).
  • Do not lock your advance directive in a safe-deposit box, home safe, or filing cabinet that only you can open.
  • Keep copies of your advance directive in handy, easy-to-find places so that someone else can find it if you are in the hospital and need it. Make sure that those closest to you have a copy and that others know where your advance directive is kept. You may also want to give a copy to your attorney, and be sure your family knows exactly who has it.
  • Be sure your advance directive is clearly marked.
  • Every once in a while, talk to your health care proxy about your advance directive in order to remind him or her of this important responsibility. If your wishes change, be sure to talk this over with your proxy, your loved ones, and your doctors. If you have a living will, be sure everyone knows where the original is kept.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: May 21, 2015 Last Revised: May 18, 2016

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