The Patient Self-Determination Act was implemented in December 1991. Before and after its implementation, we used a structured interview of 302 randomly selected patients to determine their awareness, understanding, and use of advance directives. Implementation of the Act did not have a major effect on these. Although more than 90% of patients were aware of the living will, only about a third selected the correct definition or the correct circumstances in which it applied, and less than 20% of patients had completed one. About a third of patients were aware of a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care and chose the correct definition, and about half identified the correct circumstances in which it applies; less than 10% had completed such a document. Surprisingly, patients who said they had completed advance directives did not demonstrate better understanding of these documents. Our results indicate that many patients, including some who have completed advance directives, do not fully understand them. It may be unwise to regard these documents as carefully considered, compelling statements of patients' preferences. Appropriate responses to our findings include increased public education, revising state statutes to bring them into congruence with public perception, and expanding the dialogue between physicians and patients.