What is the Difference Between a DNR and a Living Will?

Posted by Sara Doty | Sep 06, 2023 | 0 Comments

Let's start by taking a closer look at each document.  

What is a Living Will?

A Living Will, also known as an Advanced Health Care Directive, is a type of estate planning document that allows you to leave instructions for your end-of-life care. This includes decisions on medical care and instructions on what should happen if you reach an end-of-life circumstance. A Living Will is distinctive from other estate planning tools in the sense that it deals with your health and medical care, rather than the protection and transfer of assets upon death. Your Will, also known as a Last Will and Testament, is an estate planning document dealing with the transfer of your property, assets and accounts upon your death. A living will is unique in that it carries out a purpose during someone's lifetime.

What is a DNR?

A Do Not Resuscitate order is a medical order that stops doctors and other medical staff from resuscitating you. In other words, if you were to experience cardiac or respiratory arrest, you will not receive CPR or other emergency procedures in an attempt to revive you. DNR orders only go into effect at the time of death, and are typically used by patients who have a terminal illness, chronic disease, and other acute conditions. A DNR order can be included as an Advance Directive in your Estate Plan.

So what is the Difference Between a DNR and a Living Will?

A DNR carries the specific and sole purpose of informing medical care providers about whether or not wishes to be resuscitated. DNR forms must be signed by a physician and the patient. Once completed, the physician enters the DNR order into the patient's medical records. The patient may also carry the original copy and/or wallet to keep on their persons. This is helpful so that any medical response team can identify the patient as DNR when they are incapacitated and cannot express their own wishes. A DNR only goes into effect when the patient's heart stops or they stop breathing.

A Living Will, in contrast, is a legal document that covers a wide range of specifications around end of life care and planning. For instance, you can give instructions about treatments and feeding tubes you wish or do not wish to receive if you become terminally ill or vegetative. Living Wills go into effect when you become incapacitated and are unable to communicate your wishes. 

Absolutely anyone can benefit from a Living Will, no matter their stage in life. It can provide peace of mind knowing that if anything were to happen, your wishes for medical care would be known. A Living Will Prevents arguments amongst family members and reduces the burden of decision-making for caretakers.  Meanwhile, DNR orders are typically used by patients that are elderly or in poor health, where CPR efforts could likely cause injury and damage. That is not to say that DNR orders do not get used for all types of patients, but they are typically not planned in advance. They are often made as a doctor's judgment call when resuscitation efforts would be futile.

Does a Living Will Include Do Not Resuscitate?

A Living Will does not include a Do Not Resuscitate order, although both types of documents can be included in an Advance Directive. 

However, you can leave instructions about how you do not want to be resuscitated if you go into cardiac or respiratory arrest, and list out the conditions in which this would apply. For example, you could include the conditions of terminal illness, severe dementia, chronic disease, organ failure, and when you are not waking up from a coma.

Because the outcomes based on a Living Will and/or Do Not Resuscitate order are concerning life-or-death matters, it's important to be very intentional in choosing which documents to use. Know that you can revoke either document at any time. When you set up your first Living Will, you may not have a clear idea of what kind of medical care you would want. As you get older, these values and desires can change. Luckily, you can revise and update your Living Will at any time.

If for some reason you have a DNR, know that you can change your mind. Let your doctor know immediately so that they can cancel your DNR and update your medical records. Although you cannot edit or update a DNR, you can establish a new one. 

About the Author

Sara Doty

SARA JONES DOTY Sole Practitioner Location :Huntsville, Alabama Phone:256-519-9970 Fax : 256-519-9952 Email : Email Me Sara is passionate about helping families plan for the future and protect what is most important to them. This includes implementing estate plans, as well as assisting clie...


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