The Health Care Power of Attorney
If an individual becomes incapacitated, it is important that someone have the legal authority to communicate that person's wishes concerning medical treatment. A health care power of attorney allows an individual to appoint someone else to act as their agent for medical, as opposed to financial, decisions. The health care power of attorney is a document executed by a competent person (the principal) giving another person (the agent) the authority to make health care decisions for the principal if he or she is unable to communicate such decisions. By executing a health care power of attorney, principals ensure that the instructions that they have given their agent will be carried out. A health care power of attorney is especially important to have if an individual and family members may disagree about treatment.
In general, a health care power of attorney takes effect only when the principal requires medical treatment and a physician determines that the principal is unable to communicate his or her wishes concerning treatment. How this works exactly can depend on the laws of the particular state and the terms of the health care power of attorney itself. If the principal later becomes able to express his or her own wishes, he or she will be listened to and the health care power of attorney will have no effect.
Appointing an Agent
Since the agent will have the authority to make medical decisions in the event the principal is unable to, the agent should be a family member or friend that the principal trusts to follow his or her instructions. Before executing a health care power of attorney, the principal should talk to the person whom he or she wants to name as the agent about the principal's wishes concerning medical decisions, especially life-sustaining treatment.
Once the health care power of attorney is drawn up, the agent should keep the original document. The principal should have a copy and the principal's physician should keep a copy with that individual's medical records.
Those interested in drawing up a health care power of attorney document should contact an attorney who is skilled and experienced in estate planning and elder law matters. Many hospitals and nursing homes also provide forms, as do some public agencies.