Why It’s Important to Have a Health Care Power of Attorney

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Granting a power of attorney means selecting someone to make legal decisions on your behalf. Since a standard agreement is void when a person becomes incapacitated, this raises the need for a special kind of legal document for serious medical decisions ― a type of durable power of attorney known as health care power of attorney.

Health care power of attorney rules differ across states. For instance, the American Bar Association (ABA) notes that state law in Indiana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin does not allow people to use a generic, nationwide power of attorney form. With that said, the purpose and importance of taking this legal step are universal.

Who Needs a Health Care Power of Attorney?

Instead of waiting for a serious illness or medical condition to take effect, health care power of attorney is granted when a person is still healthy, anticipating possible eventualities about medical care or end-of-life decisions. The choice of whether or not to assign a health care power of attorney is yours alone.

If you have such an agreement in place and have a condition that has left you unable to communicate, the trusted person you selected will make decisions on your behalf, carrying out your wishes to make sure care proceeds as you would want. Investopedia points out that there is no requirement to assign health care power of attorney, and doing so is a personal decision.

What Happens if One Does Not Have a Health Care Power of Attorney?

The risk associated with not having health care power of attorney is that it can be hard to create a comprehensive treatment plan for someone unable to communicate. Investopedia notes having health care power of attorney assigned can lighten the burden on care providers, as they have someone to accurately explain your preferences when you are unable to speak for yourself. This enables the smoother development of a medical treatment plan.

How Does One Get a Health Care Power of Attorney?

While the exact process for assigning health care power of attorney differs from state to state, the general rules are the same. You need to sign a legal document in the presence of witnesses who are not your relatives or care providers, and do not otherwise stand to benefit financially from your death. There is typically also a space to specify a secondary person if the first listed individual is unavailable. Investopedia notes requirements around listing multiple people differ from state to state.

The rules for changing anything about health care power of attorney are also dictated by state law. The ABA therefore recommends that you use the one approach that is valid everywhere when you need to alter a detail: Complete the state forms from scratch, destroy your copies of the old version and reach out to everyone with the previous form to inform them of the changes.

What Are Questions to Consider When Appointing a Power of Attorney?

The most important question to ask yourself when determining health care power of attorney is who is best suited to make medical decisions for you as your health care agent. This is someone who is not a health care professional serving you and does not work for a care provider you work with. If you have a court-appointed guardian or conservator, that person is also not a suitable choice for a health care agent.

Investopedia suggests you will have to ensure the person you pick as your agent should be someone you can be completely honest with. The ABA added that such a person should be able to make your wishes heard clearly, even when friends and family members voice different views. Setting up a health care power of attorney agreement can only work to its fullest potential if you are unflinching in explaining your true preferences regarding situations that are hard to think about.

Next, you have to ask yourself what you would like done in the case of various serious medical situations, and then talk with the person you have chosen about carrying these decisions out. This doesn’t mean making a list of specific forms of medical treatment you don’t want. The ABA specifies that since the future is unpredictable, it’s better to set general rules about wants and needs, rather than getting into details.

Why Is Health Care Power of Attorney Better Than Leaving Instructions?

While it can be difficult for people to ask themselves questions about the most serious health conditions imaginable, then convey those responses to their health care agents in full detail and honesty, this process is critical in ensuring health care decisions are made correctly.

The ABA explained instructions regarding end-of-life care are frequently both vague and outdated once the person becomes seriously ill. Health care agents serve to ensure wishes are implemented completely and accurately.

To learn more about the ways the legal and health care fields intersect and to consider preparing to advance your career at the intersection of these two professions, check out the Hofstra University Online Master of Laws in Health Law and Policy program.

Recommended Readings:

What is health care law and why is it important?

6 careers that can benefit from a health law and policy degree


American Bar Association – Giving Someone a Power of Attorney for Your Healthcare (multi-state guide and form)

American Bar Association – Giving Someone a Power of Attorney For Your Health Care

Investopedia – Healthcare Power of Attorney (HCPA)

Investopedia – Power of Attorney

Senior Living – Durable Power of Attorney