Living wills and health care proxies are advance directives that determine what kinds of health care measures will be taken for a person if he or she becomes incapacitated.
A living will is a set of instructions for a health care provider that dictate what measures should be taken to maintain life in the event of incapacity (consistent with state statutes). A health care proxy, sometimes called a health care power of attorney, appoints an agent to make any and all health care decisions in the event of incapacity.
Since the health care proxy gives another person power over all the principal's health care decisions, its scope is broader than that of the living will, which simply states the principal's wishes. Depending on state law, a living will may be incorporated into a health care proxy, or the two documents may be prepared separately. Both directives are activated only after the principal becomes unable to make his or her own health care decisions, and can usually be changed or revoked at any time.
Some states also have default surrogate decision-making statutes, which define a priority of individuals who are empowered to act on behalf of people who did not execute advance directives prior to incompetency.