Complete estate planning includes setting up a medical power of attorney. This legal document – also called a healthcare power of attorney or durable power of attorney for healthcare – authorizes the person you designate to make medical decisions for you in the event you become incapacitated. Typically, this power encompasses choosing doctors, treatments and care facilities as your designee or agent thinks you would choose and following the directions in your living will. It also generally mandates doing what’s in your best interest. Your agent should have a copy of your medical power of attorney, as should your doctors. Having this paperwork in place can give you peace of mind, even if you don’t think you’ll need it.
What Is a Medical Power of Attorney?
When you’re in a competent state of mind, it’s easy for you to make decisions about your medical treatment. But the time may come when you’re not well enough to make your own decisions. Perhaps this is because a medical condition has rendered you unconscious; perhaps you’ve developed dementia or Alzheimer’s. In either case, someone else will have to make decisions on your behalf.
A medical power of attorney gives a loved one or friend the legal capacity to make health decisions for you. These decisions may concern everything from which treatment option to proceed with, to whether or not to prolong your life through artificial means.
How Medical Power of Attorney and Living Wills Differ
A medical power of attorney is not the same as a living will. A living will is a document that details what you’d like doctors to do in the event you become incapacitated. This could describe a number of differing actions, including the implementation of:
- Life support
- Tube feeding
- Resuscitation attempts
- Organ donations
Although medical power of attorney is described via a document, it doesn’t simply record your wishes as a living will does. Rather, it appoints a specific person to make these decisions. Should this duty arise, your agent will field questions and concerns from doctors about your health-related issues, including end-of-life plans like hospice. Through these conversations and other insights, these individuals are tasked with choosing next steps.
You might have both a living will and a medical power of attorney. In the event that decisions need to be made about resuscitation and life support, recording those wishes in a living will takes those difficult decisions out of your agent’s hands.
Choosing Your Agent
Once you take the necessary steps to administer medical power of attorney, it’s time to find your agent. It’s common to pick a spouse, parent or child, but you aren’t tied to any one person or relative.
When you’re considering someone to serve as your healthcare agent, find someone you’re comfortable talking about your health-related issues with. You should choose a person you trust with your life and who expressly agrees to take on this responsibility if and when the time comes. This person should be your advocate, follow your wishes and make sound decisions – even when friends and family are telling them otherwise.
The Commission on Law and Aging of the American Bar Association (ABA) suggests finding an agent you truly trust. It also offers some general guidelines for agents that you should probably avoid:
- Don’t choose your healthcare provider or the person who owns a health or residential facility that takes care of you.
- Steer clear of a spouse or employee of anyone that currently serves you medically, like a doctor or residential facility owner.
- Don’t choose anyone whose job it is to medically evaluate you, like a doctor or specialist.
- Unless the person is a blood relative, don’t choose someone who works for a government agency that is financially responsible for your care.
- Don’t choose the same person as your court-approved guardian or conservator.
- Don’t choose someone that’s already a healthcare agent for more than 10 people.
Some states call an agent a “healthcare proxy.” The requirements for this role typically vary slightly by state, so be sure to meet your state’s qualifications.
What Documents Do I Need for a Medical Power of Attorney?
After you’ve found an agent, it’s time to make it official. You can download a number of medical power of attorney templates online. They often come in PDF form, so they’re easily printable.
These guides usually have spots for two backup agents. This is an important extra step. In case your medical power of attorney can’t make decisions on your behalf, one of your backups will take their place. Utilize the same vetting process you did with your first choice so you don’t take these selections lightly.
You’ll also likely need two witnesses that aren’t your agent or backup agents to sign your documents. You may want to find a notary public near you. Some banks provide free notaries, or you may have friends that can notarize documents. If you can’t find one, browse the American Association of Notaries to find one near you.
Few people like to think about a scenario where they’re unable to make medical decisions on their own. Putting together a medical power of attorney document can offer some peace of mind that you’ve got a trusted friend or loved one looking after your best interests. Medical power of attorney also offers much more flexibility than a living will, which only accounts for a few situations and requires you to make decisions about hypothetical situations. The most important part of this process, though, is settling on an agent that you really trust.
Tips for Estate Planning
- In addition to planning for medical situations, it’s also important to take care of your loved ones with an airtight estate plan. A last will is a good start, but you may also want to set up a living trust so that your assets can transfer to your heirs without going through probate.
- While an estate-planning attorney can help with these legal documents, a financial advisor can invest your savings and navigate taxes so there’s plenty to pass on to your heirs. You can find a local financial advisor today with SmartAsset’s financial advisor matching tool. Just answer some questions about your finances and the free tool will match you with up to three advisors in your area.
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