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What Is a Medical Power of Attorney?

What Is a Medical Power of Attorney?
Catherine Hiles
Updated January 13, 2022
5 Min Read

When it comes to important legal documents, you have probably at least thought about making a will (if not actually had one made). But a will is just one of several documents you should have. If you want to make sure you will be taken care of if you become incapacitated or otherwise incapable of making health decisions for yourself, you need to have a medical power of attorney.

What is a medical power of attorney?

A medical power of attorney is a legal document that grants permission to a person of your choosing to make medical decisions on your behalf if you are rendered unable to do so.

That means that if you are in a serious accident that leaves you in a coma, or you develop a degenerative brain disease like Alzheimer’s, you will have a trusted friend or family member who can advocate for you when it comes time to make decisions about your care.

Even if you haven’t heard the term before, you may have an idea how this works. A medical power of attorney goes by several other names, such as health power of attorney, medical power of attorney directive, advance directive, advance health care directive, health care proxy, or durable power of attorney for health care. All of these terms refer to the same document.

A medical power of attorney only allows your agent to make decisions about your health care. You can also create a financial power of attorney, which will allow an agent to access your finances if you’re incapacitated; or a general power of attorney, which may contain elements of both.

How a medical power of attorney works

When you make a medical power of attorney, you appoint a person, known as an agent, to be the decision-maker in your place when it comes to medical care. But you don’t have to worry that your agent will try to make decisions without your knowledge. The medical power of attorney only comes into play if a doctor determines that you are incapable of making your own health decisions.

That might mean you have suffered a serious brain injury, lost the power to communicate, or that a mental issue has left you not of sound mind. Your agent cannot determine when the medical power of attorney comes into play.

Your agent will be able to make decisions about specific medical treatments, hiring a nurse or personal care assistant, or general personal care management. They will be able to choose the doctors or hospitals that provide your care, specify what tests to run or medication to use for treatment, and sign off on surgery. Of course, your agent will act upon the recommendations of your doctors, but if there is something specific you would or wouldn’t want, they will be able to ensure your wishes are heard and carried out.

To make your medical power of attorney, you can either employ a lawyer to help you or use a basic template (there are plenty available online). Either way, it will need to be notarized in order to be considered legitimate. If you are able, it’s best to use an attorney who is familiar with this type of documentation because they will know exactly what to do and how to do it.

Choosing an agent

When choosing an agent for your medical power of attorney, you need to pick someone 18 years or older that you trust and that knows and understands your wishes. That might mean a close family member like a spouse, sibling, or adult child. If you don’t have anyone in that category, consider a close friend whom you have known for a long time and consider part of your family.

You don’t want to choose someone who is mentally incompetent, and ideally you shouldn’t choose an elderly relative like a parent or grandparent. You also cannot appoint your health care provider in most states; check with your state’s rules to see if this applies.

You should also make sure that the person you choose understands what decisions you would want them to make for you. For example, would you want to be resuscitated? Would you be open to trying experimental treatments? It’s a good idea to write these directives down in a living will (more on that later) so your agent fully understands your wishes.

The person you choose should also be capable of understanding what a doctor is telling them. They don’t need to be a medical expert, but they do need to be able to grasp basic medical language and explanations provided by a doctor. 

You might have more than one person in mind to be your agent, but you can only name one in your medical power of attorney. However, you can name additional people as successors in case your agent dies or becomes incapacitated themselves.

You can also change your mind and revoke your medical power of attorney. In this case, you should create a replacement one and name a new agent.

No matter who you choose as your agent, make sure you discuss it with them first. They may not feel comfortable acting as your agent and ask you to choose someone else. Even if they are comfortable, it’s a good idea to get their permission and use the opportunity to discuss your health care wishes.

Medical power of attorney vs. living will

Another important legal document that relates to your health is a living will. This is different from a medical power of attorney, which appoints a specific agent to make decisions about your health. A living will is a document that states your personal wishes about end-of-life medical care. Your agent can use the information in your living will to inform their decisions about your health care, but a living will alone cannot appoint a representative to make decisions on your behalf.

Who should get a medical power of attorney?

While it’s a good idea for all adults to have a medical power of attorney in case of serious injury, it’s most important for older adults or those with complicated medical conditions.

It’s also a good idea to make sure you have a medical power of attorney in place if you are undergoing surgery or a procedure that requires anesthetic. In that case, you would want the directive in place if something goes wrong and you’re incapable of making your own medical decisions.

What if you don’t have a medical power of attorney?

If you don’t have a medical power of attorney and are involved in a serious accident, you don’t have to worry that your care team will leave you to die. Even without a medical power of attorney or living will in place, doctors will always try whatever they can to save your life unless directed otherwise. But by appointing an agent to speak on your behalf, you can feel more confident that your wishes will be heard and carried out.

Summary

No matter your age and health status, it’s never a bad idea to have a medical power of attorney. You may not need to use it anytime soon, but you’ll know that you have someone representing you and your wishes if anything happens to you. If you are older or have health conditions, it’s even more important to have this legal document in place. To get started on yours, contact a trusted attorney or search for templates online.

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