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A medical power of attorney is not your lawyer’s secret ability to spin three times and turn into a doctor—even though that would be really cool. But it is a pretty powerful document that relates to the law, your health and your entire family. So, a medical power of attorney is definitely something worth learning about!
What Is a Medical Power of Attorney?
A medical power of attorney (medical POA or health POA) is a legal document you use to name an agent and give them the authority to make tough medical decisions for you. A medical POA is different from a normal POA (which is more general) or a financial POA (which is similar but for your money).
The agent can only use the power a medical POA gives them if your doctor says you’re unable to make key decisions for yourself. So, for obvious reasons, this should be someone you’d trust with your life.
If that sounds like a heavy gig, it is! But choosing an agent can also save your loved ones a lot of heartache in a difficult time.
What Are Some Other Terms for a Medical Power of Attorney?
Depending on the state where you live, you may see a number of different names for the medical power of attorney—because lawyers love their fancy words. No matter the name, they all refer to the same document. A few of the other names for medical power of attorney are:
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- Health power of attorney
- Advance directive
- Advance health care directive
- Durable power of attorney for health care
- Medical power of attorney directive
And there may be other ways you can scramble those words to say the same thing! The point here is that filing a medical power of attorney is how you ensure that someone you trust can speak on your behalf if become medically incapacitated.
Since different states use different terms, it’s no surprise they also have a number of different ways of enforcing the laws around a medical power of attorney. For that reason, it’s important to find out what your state needs so your health POA is legally binding. The good news is that most states have a form for that simplifies the process.
Ready for another wrinkle? Not all of the states honor each other’s forms—though many do. So, if you’ve moved since creating your medical POA, it’s probably time to verify that it’s valid in your new state and update if necessary. Just contact your state department of health to be sure your doc is buttoned up.
How a Medical Power of Attorney Works
Maybe you’re wondering what could ever happen to keep you from speaking with doctors about what kind of care you want. Painful as it is to say, this kind of situation happens more often than we’d like! Typically, a medical POA only comes into play when someone:
- Falls into a coma as the result of brain injury or stroke
- Has a lapse of mental health keeping them from being of sound mind
- Loses the power of communication through disease or dementia
Yeah, we’re talking about serious medical situations. And in cases like this, only a doctor can decide when a medical POA applies.
If a doctor ever decides you can’t speak for yourself, the main thing your family will need is control over what to do next so you get the best medical care. A medical power of attorney is the megaphone they need to speak into an urgent situation. Without it, their voice—and your wishes—might not be heard. Usually a medical POA works together with a separate and related document, the living will.
How Is a Medical POA Different From a Living Will?
Most of us know what a will is—it’s just a document that says where your stuff goes when you die (and you definitely need one). But what about a living will?
In a nutshell, a living will is a legal document spelling out your personal choices about end-of-life medical treatment in specific situations. So far, it might sound a lot like a medical POA—but they’re not the same thing!
There are two methods for dealing with end-of-life decisions: trying to describe all your wishes in a living will or having someone you trust make those calls for you under your medical power of attorney. So, it comes down to a piece of paper versus a person. What makes a medical POA different is how it empowers a trusted friend or loved one to honor your wishes when you can’t do it for yourself.
A living will can be helpful. But even though it lays out your preferences about treatments (like medications and surgical options) its power is limited to what you knew when you wrote it. And it won’t apply unless a doctor says you’re in a potentially life-ending situation or have become permanently unconscious.
But what about those times when you might be only temporarily out of commission and your doctor expects you to recover consciousness? Your family will still want the power to make decisions on your behalf, and only a medical POA could specifically give them the power to share your wishes with doctors.
Or what if after you wrote a living will, a new surgery or drug was developed that could save your life? It’s likely your family would know all about your living will and agree with what it says. But without a medical POA, they wouldn’t be able to make the best possible choice that included new treatments or medical breakthroughs.
So, having a regular will is an important step for you and your family to take—but it doesn’t end there. Should something terrible happen to you, only a medical POA makes sure your wishes are both known and able to be met. A lot of times you can create your medical POA at the same time you create your will, so we recommend knocking them both out at once.
What Your Agent Can Do
Remember how there are multiple names for a medical POA (like health POA)? The same holds true for an agent—this person is also referred to as an attorney-in-fact, a health care proxy or a surrogate. Some of the things a medical POA authorizes your agent to decide include:
- Which doctors or facilities to work with
- What tests to run
- When or if you should have surgery
- What kinds of drug treatments are best for you (if any)
- Comfort and quality of life vs. doing everything possible to extend life
- How aggressively to treat brain damage or disease
- Whether to disconnect life support if you’re in a coma
How to Choose Your Agent
A medical power of attorney always involves two people: the principal (that’s you) and the agent. Just like in Hollywood, right? Not quite. In this case, a smooth-talking hustler is the last person you want as an agent.
To find the right person, you want somebody known as a rock of trust—like your spouse, longtime best friend, or adult son or daughter. Just be sure the person you pick:
- Is a mentally competent adult
- Has read your living will and understands it
- Has discussed your medical wishes with you, including specific scenarios
- Can grasp the medical explanations described by your doctor
- Is not your health care provider (this requirement holds in most states)
Basically, this is someone you trust enough to handle life-and-death issues for you. Choose wisely!
How to Make Your Medical Power of Attorney Form
For your medical POA to be truly binding, you must be “of sound mind” when you create and sign it. Hey, we’re all a little crazy at times, right? If that requirement seems strange, it’s just there to prevent anyone from trying to create a medical POA after you’ve become unable to function.
And just one more suggestion: Don’t name more than one agent. Although it’s technically legal to do so, it’s a bad idea because there’s no way to guarantee both agents will agree in a crisis.
If you really want to include two people on your form, consider making one of them a successor—that’s a person who could step in if the primary agent is unavailable in the future.
Should You Make a Medical Power of Attorney?
Let’s be honest. Comas and life support are not what most of us want to discuss over coffee—or really ever. But you can’t afford to shy away from them. As uncomfortable as those questions might feel while you’re in the prime of your life, they’re much harder to decide when you’re in a hospital bed and unable to speak.
Think of it this way: If you wind up in a serious medical situation someday and you don’t have a medical POA in place, your family could end up having to fight in court for the right to make those calls. And this is the absolute last thing they want to deal with during a medical crisis.
Creating your medical power of attorney as part of your will is one of the smartest and kindest things you can do for loved ones! By having one set up ahead of time, the legal issues have already been settled. It’s an ounce of prevention that’s worth a pound of cure.