A living will is an important document to have, but it has limitations. A health care durable power of attorney (DPOA) is a more versatile document that allows you to appoint a health care agent to act on your behalf.

1.  WHAT A HEALTH CARE DPOA DOES

A health care DPOA allows you to appoint a health care agent or representative to make decisions on your behalf if your condition doesn’t allow you to make your own decisions. The health care DPOA applies to all health care decisions for all types of medical conditions, not just when death is imminent or you are in a vegetative state. It gives you an opportunity to outline your philosophy as to the types of treatment you want to receive or decline including end-of-life care. Thus, it is much broader than a living will, which only expresses your desires if you are terminally ill or permanently unconscious and are unable to express your wishes regarding the use of life-prolonging procedures.

2.   WHO CAN MAKE A HEALTH CARE DPOA

Generally, you must be at least 18 years old to execute a health care DPOA. Additionally, you must be mentally competent to understand what the health care DPOA is and what powers it gives your health care agent.

3.   BENEFITS OF A HEALTH CARE DPOA

A health care DPOA may be one of the most important legal documents you will ever sign. Unfor- tunately, you never know when you might suddenly need someone to make medical decisions for you. Every year in the United States over 700,000 people have a heart attack and 800,000 suffer a stroke. A health care DPOA allows you to prepare in advance for this kind of emergency health crisis. The health care DPOA ensures that the right person will be making decisions for you and those decisions are consistent with your personal values and wishes.

4.    WHO MAKES MEDICAL DECISIONS FOR YOU WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE A HEALTH CARE DPOA

When you are unable to make medical decisions and do not have a health care DPOA, state laws give family members decision making authority with a spouse having top priority, followed by adult children, parents, adult siblings, and more distant relatives.

This makes sense because generally family members are considered to be in the best position to know what treatment decisions you would make for yourself if you were able. However, there is no guarantee that a decision made by a family member won’t cause problems. When stress is high and a loved one’s health hangs in the balance, conflicts among family members are possible. Further, some family members may make decisions based on ignorance, a desire to end family distress, or downright bad faith and personal motives. Depending on the situation, the most knowledgeable decision maker may not even be a member of the family.

For these reasons, it is much better for everyone– you, your healthcare providers, family, and friends if you have a health care DPOA.

Whether you have a health care DPOA or not, you should have conversations with key people in your life about your wishes for medical treatment. Do this for your family and not just yourself. Let them know what you want them to do if the time comes that they must speak for you.

1.   WHY YOU NEED A HEALTH CARE DPOA EVEN IF YOU ARE MARRIED

By signing a health care DPOA, you help ensure that the right person will be making decisions for you and that you will receive the best and most appropriate health care possible. You should have a health care DPOA even if you are married. If you have a spouse and children from previous rela- tionships or adult children, they may disagree about your treatment or which of them should be the decision maker. The appointment of the health care agent will reduce conflict in this high stress situation. If you want to name someone other than your spouse to be the decision maker, you will need a health care DPOA. Additionally, if you and your spouse are in a simultaneous accident, your health care DPOA can name a successor or alternate health care agent to act on your behalf.

2.   WHY YOU NEED BOTH A LIVING WILL AND A HEALTH CARE DPOA

Preparing for the unexpected means having the right documents in place. As discussed here, a living will and health care DPOA serve different legal functions. A living will is limited to end-of -life situations. It is used to express your wishes regarding life-prolonging measures if there’s no rea- sonable hope of recovery, for example, in the event of brain death, permanent unconsciousness, or terminal illness.

A health care DPOA, on the other hand, covers all health care decisions and lasts only as long as you are incapable of making decisions for yourself. It is also the legal document that allows you to appoint a health care agent to act on your behalf. Therefore, it is important to have both documents. Often state forms combine the two in one document.

Remember, if you cannot communicate or your health prevents you from making decisions, your health care agent will step into your shoes. If this article has raised more questions than answers, please reach out to me so we can discuss your specific scenario.

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