Advance care planning explained 

Advance care planning is the process of planning for your future health care. It relates to health care you would or would not like to receive if you were to become seriously ill or injured and are unable to communicate your preferences or make decisions. This often relates to the care you receive at the end of your life.

Advance care planning gives you the opportunity to think about, discuss and record your preferences for the type of care you would receive and the outcomes you would consider acceptable. It helps to ensure your loved ones and doctors know what your health and personal preferences are and that these preferences are respected.

Ideally, advance care planning will result in your preferences being documented in a plan known as an advance care directive and the appointment of a substitute decision-maker to help ensure your preferences are respected.

Why it's important

Advance care planning benefits everyone: you, your family, carers and health professionals.

  • It helps to ensure you receive the care you actually want
  • It improves ongoing and end-of-life care, along with personal and family satisfaction
  • Families of people who have undertaken advance care planning have less anxiety, depression, stress and are more satisfied with care
  • For healthcare professionals and organisations, it reduces unnecessary transfers to acute care and unwanted treatment

If you haven't documented your preferences or identified a substitute decision-maker, and you become seriously ill or injured, doctors will make treatment decisions based on their assessment of your best interests. This may include treatments that you would not want.

Planning is for everyone

Everyone should consider advance care planning, regardless of your age or health. Ideally, you should start planning when you're healthy - before there's actually an urgent need for a plan.

It is particularly important if you:

  • are older
  • have a chronic illness
  • have multiple diseases
  • have an early cognitive impairment
  • are approaching the end of your life

It's a team effort

Advance care planning requires a team effort. It involves having conversations with your family, friends, doctors, care workers and other health professionals. Having these conversations will help you start thinking about what's important to you. 

Learn more about starting the conversation.

The process

Advance care planning doesn't need to be complicated but it does require careful consideration. It involves thinking about your values and preferences for care and acceptable outcomes, talking about them with others, appointing someone to make decisions on your behalf and documenting everything.

Learn more about the advance care planning process.

Advance care directives and advance care plans

These two terms are used regularly when talking about advance care planning, however they are distinctly different and it's important to understand this difference.

Advance care directives

An advance care directive is sometimes known as a living will. It's something you create for yourself and involves documenting your preferences for future care. It can include your values, life goals and preferred outcomes, and directions about care and treatments. You can also formally appoint a substitute decision-maker in an advance care directive.

The process of creating an advance care directive and the names of the required documents varies between states and territories.

Advance care directives are legally binding and the preferences for health care that you document must be followed. 

Advance care plans

An advance care plan is created by someone else on behalf of a person with diminished or no capacity to make decisions for themselves.

An advance care plan can include an individual’s beliefs, values and preferences in relation to future care decisions. They are often helpful in providing information for substitute decision-makers and health practitioners and may guide care decisions but are not necessarily legally binding.

Some states and territories provide forms to help document an advance care plan for a non-competent person.

It's not voluntary assisted dying

There are very significant differences between advance care planning and voluntary assisted dying. Advance care planning is the process of discussing and choosing future health care and medical treatment options. It is about people making decisions about their medical treatment including future consent to, refusal or withdrawing of treatment, and substitute decision-making. All people can do advance care planning and all adults (and children in Victoria) are eligible to document an advance care directive.

Voluntary assisted dying is the active taking or receiving of approved medication to end life for eligible persons. In Australia it is currently permitted only in Victoria and Western Australia and is under consideration in other jurisdictions.

Notification of death

Death notifications are not part of the advance care planning process. To find information about this, we recommend visiting the Australian Death Notification Service.

Get advice

Contact our  National Advance Care Planning Support Service on 1300 208 582 for more information and advice. We're available 9am – 5pm, Monday – Friday (AEST).

Christina's story

Christina was 68, two years into retirement and living the ‘sea change’ dream when she suffered a brain aneurysm at home. Her condition was serious but treatable and she agreed to surgery. During the operation Christina unfortunately suffered a massive bleed in the brain. She never regained her ability to talk to her family again.

With the plan Christina had created to guide them, her sons and medical team made the tough but necessary decisions to ensure her preferences were respected.

Read Christina's story

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Print our Getting Started Guide

Getting Started Guide - family

A printable introductory guide to advance care planning.

Download PDF (2.6MB)