The topic of death is not common during an everyday conversation and may be difficult to discuss, however, planning for it can save both you and your loved one’s valuable time, as well as ease some stress for your family. One big question Estate Planning firms consistently get asked is, “what is a healthcare agent, and how do I choose one?” Let’s talk about what a healthcare agent is, why you should have one, how to choose one, and how to go about making it official.
What is a Healthcare Agent?
A healthcare agent, or a healthcare power of attorney is someone who you have granted the power to make healthcare decisions for you if you are unable to do so. They will be allowed to view your medical records and make decisions for you based on directions and wishes you’ve already given – like “pulling the plug” if you requested it in certain situations. Your healthcare agent may be required to act when you are incapacitated, such as in a coma or in the middle of surgery, or if you are aging and are no longer fully aware of your surroundings. In these scenarios, the healthcare agent will step in as your trusted representative to make the healthcare decisions that are in your best interest based on the directions you have given or written in your healthcare directive.
You might think giving someone the power to make healthcare decisions for you is dangerous and you would be 100% correct! However, you may not always be physically able to make healthcare decisions on your own which is why it is important to choose your healthcare agent carefully.
Do I need a Healthcare Agent?
Now that you know what a healthcare agent is, you’re probably asking yourself, “Do I really need one”? A better question you should ask yourself is, “do I have specific wishes I want followed I become incapacitated?”
The power you grant your healthcare agent can be broad, or narrowly defined. You can give your agent precise directions such as:
- specific wishes that correlate with your religious beliefs or
- if you want to donate organs, or
- if you do or do not want specific medical treatments, or
- if you want to be kept on life support for a specific period of time.
Your healthcare agent ensures that your desires and your decisions are carried out the way you would have wanted and the way you specified in your Healthcare Proxy.
How to choose your Healthcare Agent
So now that you know you should have a health care agent, who should you pick as yours? Typical choices include legal adults who are either a:
- Family member,
- Lawyer, or
- Someone from your faith group.
When selecting someone, think about:
- Do you trust them to carry out your wishes?
- Do they have the courage to make difficult choices?
- Do they know you well enough to understand how you would make the decision if you could?
- Are they someone who can reassure and communicate with your loved ones?
Who shouldn’t be your healthcare agent is also important to consider:
- A personal with views or objections to medical treatments
- An indecisive or meek person who won’t be able to cope under the stress
- A person who has strong views opposing “pulling the plug”
- Someone who may receive financial gain and be too willing to “pull the plug”
- An individual who travels frequently or lives a long distance away
- A healthcare provider such as a doctor or a nurse (35 states limit or prohibit a healthcare provider from serving as a healthcare agent)
Whoever you choose to be your healthcare agent, you must be as clear and honest with them as possible. You need to speak openly with them, go over your values or any beliefs you may hold, and keep them informed on how you would make healthcare decisions.
How do I make it legal?
Document it! To appoint someone as your healthcare agent, you will need a document called a Healthcare Power of Attorney which may also be referred to as:
- Appointment of a Healthcare Agent
- Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare
- Healthcare Proxy
Work with an attorney to draft the Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare for you. Don’t create it on the internet. This way, you can discuss scenarios and concerns with an experienced professional. You can craft the document as you would like and ensure you aren’t giving your healthcare agent more power than you want.
Documented! Witnessed! Notarized! – Your Healthcare power of Attorney isn’t valid unless you have it executed in the correct fashion. Most states require that your document be signed by the you in front of two witnesses (who are not related to you in any way) and notarized. Estate planning attorneys are equipped to handle these functions in their office. If the document is not executed in the correct fashion according to your particular state laws, then a hospital can decide it is not valid, and your wishes may not be carried out. Working with an estate planning attorney can ensure your wishes are enforced and you are protected by executing the documents appropriately, and helping to make these difficult discussions more manageable and stress free for your loved ones.