A medical power of attorney (POA) is a valuable legal document that gives a person the power to make medical decisions on your behalf if you become incapacitated and unable to make them for yourself. It gives your agent (who may be called your healthcare “attorney-in-fact,” “proxy” or surrogate) the power to direct healthcare providers to care for you in accordance with your wishes in unanticipated situations that may occur at any time – such as the result of an unexpected accident or sudden illness – or in older years and the end of life should you be unable to speak for yourself.

Note: A medical power of attorney has much more scope than a living will, which provides specific instructions for medical care providers to follow in anticipated situations, typically at the end of life. Having both is advisable. (For more on living wills, see 5 Reasons to Update Your Living Will.)

Why You Need a Medical POA

If you become incapacitated without having named an agent with the legal authority to make medical decisions for you, costly and unhappy consequences may result: 

  • Doctors may not recognize the authority of family members who try to make decisions for you.
  • The family member who is closest and first to arrive to make decisions may be the least qualified and capable to do so.
  • Family members may disagree among themselves about the treatment you should receive, leading to emotional conflicts.
  • Even if family members all agree that you would not want a specific treatment doctors may not stop it.
  • Disputes can end up in court.  

A medical POA averts these problems by giving your agent broad power to act with your own authority to make any decisions you could have made yourself. Unless you limit that authority, your agent will have the power to decide whether you receive treatment, choose among treatments and decide when to end treatment. The agent also will have the power to select and dismiss medical providers and will have access to your medical records. This is a great amount of power, and it must be used wisely.

Choosing the Best Person

Many people name an adult child to serve as their agent under a medical POA. But children have different personalities and abilities. It's vital that the one child who is most capable of performing the role be selected for it.

Your life may be placed in your agent’s hands, literally – so choose as your agent the child you trust most to make the medical decisions as you would make them yourself. Here, some personal traits important to such trust:

  • Ability to make hard decisions. Your agent may have to make very difficult choices under stressful family circumstances. Select a person who expresses willingness to deal with such stress, and who in doing so has the character to make the decisions you would want – not the decisions other family members want, or even he or she wants.
  • Availability. To make decisions the agent must be on the scene, which means the child must live nearby or be willing to come to you when needed, perhaps for a significant period of time.
  • Understanding. Your agent must be knowledgeable about not only all your specific medical conditions and your treatment preferences for them, but also about your attitudes regarding other issues, including potential end-of-life situations. Be sure to discuss these.
  • Assertiveness. When medical staff or other family members object to your agent’s decisions, your agent must be willing to assert legal authority to enforce them.
  • Communication skill. Your agent must stay in touch with medical personal to keep informed about your condition and communicate well with other family members to minimize family stress and avert disagreements.  

Other Considerations

Don’t have more than one agent. While it is legal to do so, it can be a bad idea. If multiple agents disagree with each other their inability to reach a decision may block the provision of care and lead to recriminations. Even when there is no voiced disagreement, if only one agent is available, doctors may refuse to act until they learn what the other agent says for fear the other will disagree. 

Dont compromise for the sake of family harmony. To avoid offending or causing conflict among siblings, some people don’t finish selecting an agent, or name more than one child as agent. But should the need for an agent arise, these mistaken actions may cause many more problems than they are intended to save. Select the best qualified child to serve as agent under you medical POA, and alleviate any family stress that might result by fully explaining your decision to all. 

Consider naming the same agent named under a financial POA. It’s convenient to have the person who makes medical decisions also have authority to pay medical expenses. And if these agents are different persons, a financial agent who disagrees with decisions of the medical agent may refuse to pay medical bills. So if you do name two different persons to these roles, be sure they get along well. (See also, Which Child’s Best for Monetary Power of Attorney?)

The Bottom Line  

Having a medical POA give a chosen individual the legal power to assure that you receive the medical care you desire should you be incapacitated can both improve the quality of your care and reduce family stress. Choosing an adult child to serve in this role that is so important to you and your family can make perfect sense. But be sure you select the child who is best qualified for the role. This is a choice too critical to compromise for any less important reason.

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