While much of estate planning focuses on finances, a comprehensive estate plan should also help you prepare for any potential medical or healthcare decisions you may need to make in the future. That's why a medical power of attorney, also known as a durable power of attorney for healthcare, is essential.
What is medical power of attorney?
A power of attorney is a legal document that appoints someone as your representative and gives that person the power to act on your behalf. Different types of powers of attorney address different situations.
With a medical power of attorney, you appoint someone—often referred to as your attorney-in-fact or your agent—to step in and make medical decisions for you if you become too ill or are otherwise incapacitated and can't make those decisions on your own.
Unlike a regular power of attorney, which is nondurable, a medical power of attorney is always a durable power of attorney. A nondurable power of attorney expires and is no longer valid if you become incapacitated. Because of this, medical powers of attorney are written to be durable—they don't come into effect unless you become incapacitated.
Choosing your attorney-in-fact
It's important to carefully consider whom you want to appoint to be your representative or attorney-in-fact under your medical power of attorney. Note that, despite using the word "attorney" in the term "attorney-in-fact," this person is not required to be an attorney. Most people appoint a family member or close family friend as their attorney-in-fact.
However, you want to select as your representative someone you can trust to make the same medical decisions you would make if you weren't incapacitated. While a person acting under a power of attorney for medical decisions is required to make those decisions following any healthcare wishes that you've made known to them, you are still placing a great deal of trust in them. Designate someone who won't later decide to disregard your wishes.
If you do not have a medical power of attorney
You may feel you don't need a medical power of attorney. For example, maybe you already have a living will as part of your estate plan, or perhaps you've already expressed your wishes to your loved ones about the kind of healthcare you want to receive if you become incapacitated.
If you're hesitant about the necessity of having a medical power of attorney, it's important to understand who will make medical decisions for you if you can't make those decisions on your own.
- Living will. If you have a living will, it will only be enacted if you are in a permanent state of incapacity. This is because a living will addresses with end-of-life situations, and a key requirement is that you are permanently incapacitated. But if you are temporarily incapacitated—for example, if you fall into a temporary coma after an accident but your doctors expect you to eventually come out of the coma—your living will won't be able to help with the healthcare decisions that may need to be made during this time.
- Your loved ones know what you want. It's easy to see the potential for conflict that could arise in this scenario. Your loved ones may not correctly remember your instructions, may interpret your directions to them differently or may decide on religious or moral grounds that a different decision would be better for you. Having a medical power of attorney avoids these situations. Additionally, your state's laws may give one of your loved ones priority in terms of medical decision-making power over another loved one who may be more likely to make medical decisions following your wishes.
How to get a medical power of attorney
You can find various places online to download a durable medical power of attorney form if you wish to take a do-it-yourself approach. However, even if you wish to prepare your medical power of attorney document yourself, it's always helpful to consult with an estate planning attorney who can tell you which documents you will need for your particular situation and needs.
The durable medical power of attorney is an essential element in your estate planning tool kit. By utilizing a medical power of attorney, you'll gain the peace of mind that comes with knowing someone you trust will be able to step in and make vital healthcare decisions for you if you can't make those decisions yourself.