Health Care Proxy or Medical Power of Attorney (POA): Meaning, Rights, How to Choose

The proxy you choose acts as your voice when you cannot communicate in medical settings.
Dalia Ramirez
By Dalia Ramirez 
Updated
Edited by Tina Orem

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What is a health care proxy?

A health care proxy, also called a medical power of attorney (POA) or agent, is someone you appoint to make health care decisions for you if you can’t communicate due to illness or injury

Cornell Law School. Health care proxy. Accessed Jul 7, 2023.
.

Anyone over 18 can name a health care proxy by filling out a proxy form or advance directive. If you don’t designate a health care proxy and become unable to communicate, state laws may automatically select someone you wouldn't choose to make important health care decisions, such as an estranged family member

Medicare Interactive. Health care proxies. Accessed Jul 7, 2023.
.

🤓Nerdy Tip

A medical POA is not the same as a financial power of attorney, which gives someone the right to make legal and financial decisions for someone else. However, a durable power of attorney, which stays intact if you become incapacitated, can refer to medical or financial POA designations.

What powers does a health care proxy or medical POA have?

A health care proxy can make decisions about medical procedures to diagnose or treat your condition, including resuscitation and other lifesaving measures. Your medical practitioners must comply with your proxy's decisions to the same extent they would comply with your own.

You can limit what your health care proxy can do and even require them to consult a doctor or family members before making certain decisions.

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How to designate a health care proxy or medical POA

  1. Request a health care proxy form from your medical provider or download a health care proxy form online, which may also be called a health care or medical power of attorney designation form. These generally cost less than $20 and are sometimes free. Many online will makers include medical power of attorney forms in their estate planning packages.

  2. Two witnesses (who aren’t your proxy) may need to sign the form for it to be official in some states. Check your state rules or consult an experienced estate planning attorney to ensure you’re meeting the requirements.

Give copies to your health care provider, health care proxy and anyone else who should be in the loop, such as close family members.

Who should be your health care proxy or medical POA?

There are several factors to consider when choosing a health care proxy. Here are a few:

  • Respect for your preferences. Your proxy must prioritize your wishes over theirs and make choices that align with your values. They should be able to understand your religious and moral beliefs and your attitude toward health care settings, illness and death. “Your proxy should be someone you are comfortable sharing your philosophy on future health care and quality of life with,” says Joan Smith, director of social work services at Tufts Medical Center. “This is someone who you trust to respect your wishes until the end.”

  • Relationship. In most states, your next of kin will be your automatic proxy if you don’t name one. “It’s especially important to name a proxy if there’s someone you do not want to speak on your behalf,” says Kate DeBartolo, senior director of The Conversation Project, which focuses on encouraging people to talk about their end-of-life health care wishes. If you’re estranged from your biological family, for example, selecting a partner or friend can ensure your current wishes are valued.

  • Ability to make decisions. Your proxy must be ready to communicate with doctors about any issues. “Ask yourself, ‘Who’s able to speak up on my behalf? Are they comfortable making quick decisions? Asking questions? Pushing back against medical practitioners?'” DeBartolo says. In some cases, a family member may not be the best choice, as the people closest to you may have a hard time carrying out wishes you may have for life-ending treatment.

How to prepare a health care proxy or medical POA

  • Have a conversation. Speak honestly with your proxy about your preferences for end-of-life treatment. “It’s essential to discuss ahead of time,” Smith says. “Sometimes people appoint a friend or relative, assuming that they’ll be OK making these important decisions when they’re not.”

  • Keep your proxy updated. Your wishes may shift in the event of aging or a terminal diagnosis, but telling your proxy what’s most important to you can make life-or-death decisions much more manageable. The Conversation Project, an Institute for Healthcare Improvement initiative, has a guide to help you tell your proxy what’s important to you.

  • Loop in your loved ones. Families can disagree over a person’s final wishes. To avoid end-of-life conflict, tell your close family members in advance who you’ve chosen as your proxy and why. A simple email to your loved ones can help them prepare and, when the time comes, grieve in peace without blame or conflict.

  • Consider your proxy’s role. Some proxies need to make difficult, life-or-death decisions for their loved ones. Make sure to remind your chosen proxy that they’re advocating for choices you’ve made, not deciding for you. “Your proxy should know that if their decision results in the end of your life, it’s not their fault — it’s a result of the illness or injury,” DeBartolo says.

Frequently asked questions

About half of all hospitalized older adults needed at least some assistance from a proxy to speak to doctors within 48 hours of being admitted, according to a 2014 study

. Consult an experienced estate planning attorney for advice about your circumstances.

A proxy usually can’t be under 18 or an employee of your health care facility (unless they’re a relative). In more than half of U.S. states, your proxy can’t be a potential beneficiary of your estate or have power of attorney over your finances.

You can change your proxy anytime, as long as you are of sound mind. Your relationships may change throughout your life, and the right proxy for you may depend on your health status and needs. Consult an experienced estate planning attorney for advice about your circumstances and to ensure that your health care proxy designation is legally enforceable in your state.

Parents are automatic proxies for children under 18, but when you reach adulthood, it’s up to you to select one. If you don’t, your state court may have to choose one for you, which could range from a spouse to a stranger. Consult an experienced estate planning attorney for advice about your circumstances and to ensure that your health care proxy designation is legally enforceable in your state.

No, a proxy can be any adult of your choosing. If you don’t want to name a family member, you can ask a friend, neighbor or community member to be your proxy.

Naming more than one health care proxy is allowed in a few states, but having two proxies can cause conflict and complicate medical decisions. However, you can name an alternate proxy as a backup. Consult an experienced estate planning attorney for advice about your circumstances and to ensure that your health care proxy designation is legally enforceable in your state.

No. Not all proxy scenarios are at the end of life, and accidents can happen anytime. If you are over 18, no matter your health condition, naming a proxy can help ensure your wishes are valued in a life-or-death situation.

No. Your proxy only needs to be able to answer the contact phone number you provided to speak to a medical provider. They don’t need to live nearby. Consult an experienced estate planning attorney for advice about your circumstances and to ensure that your health care proxy designation is legally enforceable in your state.

No, typically there is no financial burden to being a proxy, and they will not be required to pay medical costs related to their decisions. Consult an experienced estate planning attorney for advice about your circumstances and to ensure that your health care proxy designation is legally enforceable in your state.

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