A living will and power of attorney are both legal documents that can be used to carry out a person’s decisions in the event that he is unable or unavailable to handle his own affairs. The two documents are not exactly the same, however. Generally, a power of attorney names a person, called an agent or attorney-in-fact, to make decisions for a party in the event that he is unable or unavailable to make his own decisions and carry them out. A living will, on the other hand, typically provides details about a person’s desire to have his life prolonged via medical equipment and procedures.
Many people are confused about the differences between a living will and power of attorney because both documents provide instructions for how a person’s affairs should be handled if he is unable to manage them himself. A power of attorney, however, essentially gives a named agent the power to handle the principal's affairs. Essentially, this means the agent has the right to make the same decisions the principal would normally make for himself, including those related to money. Often, a power of attorney is activated when the principal is incapacitated or becomes too ill to make his own decisions. It may also take effect, however, when the principal is simply unavailable to make decisions for himself.
There are different types of powers of attorney, and a person may create one that is limited to medical decisions. With a medical power of attorney, a named agent has the authority to weigh potential treatments and choose the treatments he feels best meet the principal’s needs. The agent, in such a situation, makes medical decisions when the principal is unable to speak for himself. He may decide to consent to treatment or refuse consent. The agent may even decide to withdraw consent that has already been granted.
Many people may think of living wills as the same as medical powers of attorney, but a living will and power of attorney are different in some critical ways. First, living wills are typically only used for cases in which patients are terminal, while medical powers of attorney typically cover all medical decisions. Second, an agent is named for a medical power of attorney, but one may not be for a living will. Third, a living will records the principal's medical wishes in a legal document, while the decision-making is left up to the agent when a medical power of attorney is created. Sometimes a person prepares for the future by creating both a living will and power of attorney.