What Is A Health Care Proxy? | Find Out If You Need One

An elderly couple signing documents in front of a lawyer.

Have you ever thought about who would make health care decisions for you if you were incapacitated and unable to speak for yourself? Most people have their own wishes when it comes to medical treatment and life-saving efforts, but are you certain that those wishes would be carried out? A health care proxy allows you to appoint someone to handle those decisions should the need arise. You can create a health care proxy even if you are currently in good health! In fact, that is usually the best time to do it! Keep reading as we tell you exactly what a health care proxy is, how they work, and how you can create one.


What Is A Health Care Proxy?

A health care proxy is a legal document that allows you to appoint someone to act as your agent, or proxy, to make healthcare decisions for you in the event you are unable to express your own wishes. The document may allow the person you appoint to simply communicate your wishes to the doctors and nurses, or it might enable them to make decisions on your behalf. This document is sometimes called a health care power of attorney or medical power of attorney. The document must be created and executed while you are of sound mind and legally competent, but the document only takes effect upon your incapacitation.

Typically, your attending physician must attest that you are incapacitated and unable to make your own decisions before your proxy can make treatment decisions. You can appoint anyone that you trust as your health care agent, although most people typically appoint a close friend or family member. Though many people use the terms interchangeably, a health care proxy and a living will have some differences. We will discuss those differences in more detail in the next section.

In the event of terminal illness, your proxy might remain in effect from the point of your incapacitation until your death. However, in the event of an accident, the health care proxy authority ends once you regain the ability to make your own decisions. You can also use the document to limit the powers of your proxy. If there are any decisions that you do not wish to allow your proxy to make, those should be spelled out in the document.


Health Care Proxy VS. Living Will

Now you already know that a health care proxy allows you to appoint another person to make medical decisions for you. A living will, on the other hand, is a document that allows you to express your wishes so that your doctors can follow those wishes in certain medical situations. Living wills typically apply to end-of-life treatments. You might use a living will to express whether or not you wish to receive certain life-sustaining treatment, such as tube feeding or breathing machines. Your living will would be used to determine whether to place you on life support instead of placing that decision on your caregivers. It would not, however, prevent your doctor from providing pain medication, hydration, or other palliative care.

Each state has slightly different rules when it comes to health care proxies and living wills. State law will govern your situation when it comes to these documents. Several states combine these two documents into a single document called an advance directive. The advance health care directive allows you to express your own health care decisions and treatment preferences in certain medical situations while also appointing a proxy to make some decisions about your medical care for you.


Tips For Choosing Your Proxy

A closeup of a male hand signing a document.

So, how do you choose the right person to make these life decisions for you? The decision of who to appoint as your proxy can be a difficult one, and it should not be one that you take lightly. First, you should appoint someone who you completely trust. This person might be required to make life and death decisions, so you want to make sure that they have the best interest of you and your family in mind. Many people appoint a close family member, like a spouse or child, as their proxy. However, some people choose to appoint a close family friend as the decision-maker so that their family and loved ones do not have to make those difficult decisions.

In addition to your first choice, you should also decide on a backup proxy. Most states allow you to appoint a backup proxy in the event that your first choice is unavailable or unable to make those decisions. In some cases, you might create the document many years before it is needed. The person you appointed as your primary agent might no longer be able to serve in that capacity, so your backup choice could step in.

Once you decide who you will appoint as your proxy, it is extremely important to discuss your wishes with that person. Make sure they fully understand your beliefs and wishes about life-sustaining care. They should also understand your religious beliefs and your feelings about health care facilities. Making sure that your proxy is informed about your wishes is critical to allowing them to make the best decisions for you. You might also choose to share some of your medical records with your proxy so that they can make the most informed decisions possible.


How To Create A Health Care Proxy

The process to create a health care proxy is not overly complicated. The process varies slightly from state to state as each state has different laws governing health care proxies. Some states even have specific health care proxy forms that must be used when creating the document. Your health care provider is likely to be able to provide you with a form to use, and you can always visit a local attorney to assist you with your health care planning and proxy creation.

Generally, the form will need your signature and a notary who witnessed your signature. Some forms require separate witnesses from the notary, while others do not. The document should name both a primary proxy and an alternate proxy in the event that your first choice is unable to serve in that capacity. Finally, the form should be kept in a safe place, and your proxy should be able to access the form when needed. Keeping the form in a safe deposit box at your bank is not a good idea unless your proxy also has access to the box. This person will need to present the form to your health care provider if the need arises. In some complex situations, the form might even be needed in court to determine the proper course of action.


Other Valuable Estate Planning Documents

In addition to a health care proxy or advance directive, there are also several other documents that you should have. First, a durable power of attorney is always a good idea. This document allows you to appoint an agent to make financial decisions on your behalf should you become incapacitated. A regular power of attorney terminates upon your incapacitation, but a durable power of attorney remains in effect even after your incapacitation.

The other extremely important document is a last will and testament. In the unfortunate event that you do not survive the accident or condition that caused you to become incapacitated, you will need a will to distribute your estate. A will only takes effect upon your death, and it directs your executor to distribute your estate according to your wishes. Otherwise, your estate will be split and distributed according to state law instead of according to your own wishes.

Some people find that a living trust suits their needs very well. There are some major differences between a living trust and a will, and it is generally a good idea to have both of these documents as part of your estate planning package.


The Bottom Line

A health care proxy is an important legal document that allows you to name a person to make medical decisions for you. This document only takes effect should you become incapacitated and unable to speak for yourself. Make sure that you name someone you trust and who is familiar with your wishes and beliefs. You may also choose to have a living will, advance directive, durable power of attorney, and last will and testament. These are extremely important documents that can make things easier for your family and friends during a difficult time.


Frequently Asked Questions


What are the responsibilities of a health care proxy?

Your health care proxy will be responsible for making decisions for you regarding life-sustaining treatment in the event that you cannot speak for yourself. They will make these decisions and convey your wishes to your healthcare providers. In some cases, they might simply be conveying your wishes to the doctors about feeding tubes or other life support measures. However, in other cases, they might be faced with making decisions for you regarding certain types of treatment.


Who should be your health care proxy?

You can appoint anyone as your health care proxy, although most people choose to appoint a family member or close friend. Your proxy should be someone that you know and trust, and they should be familiar with how you wish to handle your health care. You should make your wishes known to them, and you should share your religious beliefs and views on health care practices. You want to provide this person with as much information as possible so that they can make the decisions that you would be most likely to make on your own.


What if you have more than one person to be your health care proxy?

It is generally a good idea to only appoint one person to be your health care proxy. This avoids the situation of appointing multiple people and having them unable to reach an agreement regarding certain decisions. However, it is a good idea to appoint a primary proxy and at least one alternate proxy. This ensures that you have a proxy, even if your first choice can no longer serve when the need arises. You can even appoint multiple alternate proxies if you choose to.


What are the consequences of not having a health care proxy?

Failure to have a health care proxy could lead to medical services being performed that are not in line with your wishes. Failure to have a proxy might also mean that your family members are forced to make difficult decisions regarding your healthcare. In extreme situations, your family might end up in a complex court battle to determine who should make those decisions for you. You should not put your family in that situation if it is avoidable, so having a health care proxy in place is critical should the need for it ever arise.