Advance Directives

Advance directives and POLST forms are both advance care planning tools, but they are different in many ways. This can be challenging because there are different words for these tools in each state. Here are the words you need to know:

Advance Directive

  • Used to legally name the person who you want to make medical decisions for you when you cannot communicate or participate in those discussions. This person is called a surrogate (more below).
  • Also used to provide information about your values, religious beliefs, what you enjoy doing, and any general treatment wishes.
  • In your state, this document may be called an advance directive, living will, or health care power of attorney.



  • This is the person who makes your medical decisions if you cannot communicate. You legally appoint this person in an advance directive. In your state, this person may be called a surrogate, a proxy, a health care power of attorney, or a decision-maker.
  • In most states, if you can’t communicate, this is the person your provider will talk with about creating or updating your POLST form.

How Health Often Changes Over Time

This graphic shows how health can change over time and when an advance directive and POLST form are most appropriate to use.

A graphic showing a pink line going from left to right, with it starting high up and level, representing good health when we are younger. Then, there are dips and surges which represent illness and recovery after acquiring a life-limiting illness. The line shows a gradual decline overall, representing how many of us become unhealthy gradually, until a steep drop off signifying death at the far right.

The pink line shows your health over time. Most people are in Stage 1 or Stage 2. For those over 18, an advance directive is appropriate. Regardless of age (except in a couple of states), a POLST is appropriate in Stage 3.

Comparing Advance Directives and POLST forms

View this chart and watch this video to learn key differences between advance directives and POLST forms.

Chart Comparing Advance Directives and POLST

Next Steps