What’s the Difference between a Living Will and a DNR?

Clients occasionally ask about “DNRs” and whether we prepared them as part of the estate plan during our consultations.  We do not, but we do prepare living wills.[i] A living will and a Do Not Resuscitate Order, known as a DNR, are very different documents. However, many people confuse the two. They both address end of life issues and are used in different settings, according to the article “One Senior Place: Know the difference between ‘living will’ and ‘do not resuscitate’” from Florida Today.

As a quick aside, many states articulate medical decision making differently, and that comes out in estate planning.  For example, some states have advanced care directives with more exhaustive instructions, others are very simplistic.  For this blog’s purposes, I’m focusing on living will versus DNR.

What is a Living Will?

A living will is a statement describing a person’s wishes about receiving life-sustaining medical treatment in case of a terminal illness or irreversible if the condition is incurable. It is used when you can’t speak for yourself and gives guidance to a decision-maker who will act on your behalf.  This includes choices such as whether to continue the use of artificial respiration, feeding or hydration tubes or other artificial means to prolong life.

The living will is used to make your wishes clear to loved ones and to physicians. It is prepared by an estate planning or elder law attorney, often when having an estate plan created or updated. It will be used if and when the situation arises.

What is a DNR?

A DNR is a medical directive used to convey wishes to not be resuscitated in the event of respiratory or cardiac arrest. This document needs to be signed by both the patient and their physician. It’s often printed on brightly colored paper, so it can be easily found in an emergency.

To draw the distinction a little more clearly, the living will comes into play when the doctors have done what they can and nothing else is expected to help (the terminal condition) in which case your wishes are follow, and the DNR is a request not to try and resuscitate.  Most people if they are in my office want the living will, not the DNR.

The DNR should be placed in a location where it can be easily and quickly found. In nursing homes, this is typically at the head or foot of the bed. At home, it’s often posted on the refrigerator.  It is also often used in hospital settings.  The DNR needs to be immediately available to ensure that the patient’s last wishes are honored.

When the DNR is in effect and easily found, the emergency responders will not initiate CPR if they find the patient in cardiopulmonary arrest or respiratory arrest. They may instead provide comfort care, including administering oxygen and pain management.  To be clearer, a DNR doesn’t mean doctors won’t treat you, but it means they won’t resuscitate in the event of arrest.

If a person is admitted to the hospital, their living will is placed on the chart so that it can be followed appropriately. Once a clinical determination of a terminal and irreversible condition has been made, the terms of the living will are followed.

As one more final point, clients sometimes confuse the medical power of attorney and living will.  Mary did an excellent blog cover the basics of each, their differences, and why having both is beneficial. You can find that here:

https://www.galliganmanning.com/living-wills-and-medical-powers-of-attorney-why-they-are-important/

Reference: Florida Today (July 19, 2022) “One Senior Place: Know the difference between ‘living will’ and ‘do not resuscitate’”

[i] In Texas, we use a “Directive to Physicians.”  This is largely analogous to living wills in other jurisdictions.  Since I’m writing online and to more than just a Texas audience, I’ll use the more generic term of living will.

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Making End of Life Decisions Part of your Estate Plan

End of life decisions are an important part of your estate plan.

If your end of life decisions are important to you, there are a handful of documents that are typically created during the process of developing an estate plan that can be used to achieve this goal, says the article “Choosing a natural end” from The Dallas Morning News.

The four documents are the Medical Power of Attorney, the Directive to Physicians, the Out-of-Hospital Do-Not-Resuscitate, and the In-Hospital Do-Not-Resuscitate. Note that every state has slightly different estate planning laws. Therefore, you will want to speak with an experienced estate planning attorney in your state. If you spend a lot of time in another state, you may need to have a duplicate set of documents created. Your estate planning attorney will be able to help.  In Texas, attorneys often prepare the Medical Power of Attorney and Directive to Physicians, and Do-Not-Resuscitate Orders are prepared by medical systems.  See Mary’s excellent blog for further background https://www.galliganmanning.com/living-wills-and-medical-powers-of-attorney-why-they-are-important/.

For the Medical Power of Attorney, you are appointing an agent to make health care decisions if you cannot. This may include turning off any life-support systems, refusing life-sustaining treatment and other end of life decisions. Talk with the person you want to take on this role and make sure they understand your wishes and are willing and able to carry them out.  You have the right to change your agent at any time.

The Directive to Physicians, which is basically the Living Will of Texas, is a way for you to let physicians know what you want for comfort care and any life-sustaining treatment in the event you receive a diagnosis of a terminal or irreversible health condition. You aren’t required to have this, but it is a good way to convey your wishes. The directive does not always have to be the one created by the facility where you are being treated, and it may be customized to your wishes, as long as they are within the bounds of law. Many people will execute a basic directive with their estate planning documents, and then have a more detailed directive created when they have a health crisis.  It and the Medical Power of Attorney serve to nominate and provide guidance to your healthcare decision-maker on end of life decisions.

The Do-Not-Resuscitate (DNR) forms come in two different forms in most states. Unlike the Directive to Physicians, the DNR must be signed by your attending physician. The Out-of-Hospital DNR is a legally binding order that documents your wishes to health care professionals acting outside of a hospital setting not to initiate or continue CPR, advanced airway management, artificial ventilation, defibrillation or transcutaneous cardiac pacing. You need to sign this form, but if you are not competent to do so, a proxy or health care agent can sign it.

The In-Hospital DNR instructs a health care professional not to attempt CPR, if your breathing or heart stops. It is issued in a health care facility or hospital and does not require your signature. However, the physician does have to inform you or make a good faith effort to inform a proxy or agent of the order.

If you have specific wishes for your end of life decisions, especially if you want a natural end, speak with your estate planning attorney about how to legally prepare to protect your wishes.

Reference: The Dallas Morning News (Jan. 12, 2020) “Choosing a natural end”

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