How to establish a medical power of attorney (and why)

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“Power of attorney” is one of those phrases — like “cold fusion” and “run a trace on that” — you hear somewhere, maybe an action movie, and everyone nods along, pretending they know what it means. Sure, you could probably sketch out a reasonable guess — it’s, um, like, a lawyer … who has power … for you? — but you wouldn’t exactly ace the essay portion of this particular exam.

We’re here to help. We spoke with our friends Daniel Goldstein, founder, and Patrick Hicks, legal counsel, both at Trust & Will, to answer your (and our) burning questions. Turns out a medical power of attorney is pretty darn important, and something you’ll want to get a handle on as part of your end-of-life planning.

Here’s the deal.

What is a medical power of attorney?

Hicks explains that “power of attorney, any type, is essentially a designation of someone else to have authority to act for you.” For medical power of attorney, “that power comes into play when you’re unable to make your own medical decisions,” Hicks told us. So let’s say you’re hit by a bus, leaving you unconscious. If you have medical power attorney, your spouse or someone you designate will be able to make decisions about your health care when you can’t. A similar thing comes into play if you have Alzheimer’s or dementia. The person you designate as a medical power of attorney will decide for you when you aren’t able to decide for yourself.

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Does the person need to be an actual attorney?

The person you designate to hold power of attorney does not need to be an attorney. And they don’t need any medical experience, either. Instead, think of this person as an executor. Someone you trust to make decisions you would make yourself if you could. If you’re mentally incapacitated for whatever reason, this person will have the power to make medical decisions for you — including, for example, whether to resuscitate you or whether to remove life-sustaining equipment.

Why designate a medical power of attorney?

If you don’t designate a medical power of attorney, state laws will make their best guess on who should make these decisions on your behalf. “Most states have an ordered list of who has priority,” Hicks says. “Probably your spouse if you’re married. If they’re unavailable, then it might go to the next generation.” As Hicks points out, this is where things can get thorny. “Let’s say it’s your children, and they don’t agree. And then you have not only family fighting, you could have litigation about it — siblings suing other siblings to determine what happens [to you]. There are well-publicized cases of this, but these things happen on a daily basis.”

In other words, clearly designating both your wishes and who is responsible for executing them isn’t just a way to ensure your wishes are respected—it’s a way to help keep family from fighting.

“If you designate someone as your representative, it’s good to have a conversation about your wishes and preferences,” Hicks says. “It’s helpful to make sure that the people you put in that position have some guidance on what to do. There’s [the potential] for a lot of guilt and regret if they have to guess.” So, not to be dramatic, but you’re potentially sparing your spouse or children a lifetime of questioning whether they did what you wanted them to do on your behalf.

Specific scenarios you might want to address include: what type of care you would want in the event that you are mentally incapacitated; what type of care you would want in the event that you are physically incapacitated; when and if you might want physician-assisted suicide (if that’s legal in your state); what type of interventions you would or would not want to receive in an emergency; your overall values and priorities when it comes to care, aging, and even finances (i.e., how much you’re willing to spend to keep you alive when the outlook might be grim).

For more guidance, take a look at this worksheet from the American Bar Association’s Commission on Law and Aging, along with this one. It’s the next best thing to talking with a lawyer, and you won’t get billed by the hour (or at all).

How do you get a medical power of attorney?

Hicks says that to prepare a medical power of attorney, “you have to be above the minimum age, have to have [the mental] capacity, have it written, sign it, and some states require a notary. And at that point, it’s legally valid.” Once you’ve done all this, be sure to inform the person or people named on the document as a courtesy, as a way of making sure they understand your wishes, and as a practical way of letting them know where your documentation is.

One thing Hicks says to keep in mind: You can make this part of a bigger overall directive. “You can combine your medical power of attorney with other decisions — do you want to receive life support, or painkillers if you’re in suffering? What are your preferences, as opposed to who do you want to make decisions for you? This is often known as a living will.”

One more piece of advice from Hicks: “It’s typically a good idea to have a medical power of attorney included with your medical records when you go in for a checkup. Some states even let you register it. You can put an official copy on file with the state.” In other words, the more people who know about it, the better the chance that the right person will be consulted when a decision needs to be made, and in the case of a living will, that your wishes will be honored.

Can I get a medical power of attorney for free?

The answer is a resounding yes. As part of Haven Life Plus, our innovative rider to the Haven Term policy, you can get a will and create a medical power of attorney through Trust & Will.

While getting a medical power of attorney might entail making some difficult — indeed, literally life and death — decisions, we’re happy to inform you that getting one has never been easier. As for “cold fusion,” well, the mystery remains…

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Louis Wilson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a wide array of publications, both online and in print. He often writes about travel, sports, popular culture, men’s fashion and grooming, and more. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he has developed an unbridled passion for breakfast tacos, with his wife and two children. This article is sponsored by Haven Life Insurance Agency. Opinions are his own.

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Haven Term is a Term Life Insurance Policy (DTC 042017 [OK1] and ICC17DTC in certain states, including NC) issued by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual), Springfield, MA 01111-0001 and offered exclusively through Haven Life Insurance Agency, LLC. Policy and rider form numbers and features may vary by state and may not be available in all states. In NY, Haven Term is DTC-NY 1017. In CA, Haven Term is DTC-CA 042017. Our Agency license number in California is OK71922 and in Arkansas, 100139527.

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