Background Stating preferences about care beforehand using advance care planning and advance directives has become increasingly common in current medicine. There is still lack of clarity what happens over the course of time in relation to these preferences. We wanted to determine whether the preferences about end-of-life care of a person owning an advance directive stay stable after the experience of a life-event; how often advance directives are altered and discussed with family members and physicians over time. Design A longitudinal cohort study with a population consisting of people owning the most common advance directives in the Netherlands, with a follow-up of 6-years from 2005 until 2011. Respondents were recruited using two associations that provided the advance directives, Right to Die-NL (n = 4463) and the Dutch Patient Organisation (n = 1263). Each 1.5 year a questionnaire was sent. We analyzed the relationship between variables using generalized estimated equations. Results 96.9–98.1% of the respondents who had experienced a life-event had stable preferences. 89.9–93.7% of Right-to-Die-NL-members who had experienced a life-event didn’t make any alterations in their advance directives. During the 6-year course of our study, a minority of both groups didn’t discuss their advance directive with anyone (8.7–16.4%), while a majority didn’t discuss it with physicians (ranging 58.1–95.1%). Factors related to health, such as deterioration in experienced health, increased the odds to discuss advance directives. Conclusion Our results largely dispute criticism concerning usability of advance directives due to lack of stability of preferences. Whereas a change in health status and the experience of other life-events were not related to instability in preferences, they did increase the odds of communication about advance directives. Because our results show that the possession of an advance directive does not necessarily result in frequent discussions between patients and caregivers, a more structured approach like advance care planning might be a solution.