What is a Health Care Agent?

If an individual becomes incapacitated, it is important that someone have the legal authority to communicate that person's wishes concerning medical treatment. Similar to a power of attorney, a health care agent allows an individual to appoint someone else to act as their agent, but for medical, as opposed to financial, decisions. The health care agent is a document executed by a competent person (the principal) giving another person (the agent) the authority to make health care decisions for the principal if he or she is unable to communicate such decisions. By executing a health care agent, principals ensure that the instructions that they have given their agent will be carried out. A health care agent is especially important to have if an individual and family members may disagree about treatment.

In general, a health care agent takes effect only when the principal requires medical treatment and a physician determines that the principal is unable to communicate his or her wishes concerning treatment. How this works exactly can depend on the laws of the particular state and the terms of the health care agent itself. If the principal later becomes able to express his or her own wishes, he or she will be listened to and the health care agent will have no effect.

Since the agent will have the authority to make medical decisions in the event the principal is unable to make such decisions for him- or herself, the agent should be a family member or friend that the principal trusts to follow his or her instructions. Before executing a health care agent, the principal should talk to the person whom he or she wants to name as the agent about the principal's wishes concerning medical decisions, especially life-sustaining treatment.

Once the health care agent is drawn up, the agent should keep the original document. The principal should have a copy and the principal's physician should keep a copy with that individual's medical records.

Those interested in drawing up a health care agent document should contact an elder law attorney who is skilled and experienced in elder law matters.

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