Why Do I Need a Health Care Power of Attorney?

So you drafted your will and funded a small trust for the grandkids’ college expenses. You are relieved that your estate planning duties are now complete. But not so fast! You forgot one very important document.

No estate plan is complete without a signed heath care power of attorney on file. Sometimes referred to as a health care proxy, these documents appoint an individual who can act in your stead and make decisions about the type of health care and resuscitative efforts you will receive after you become incapacitated and can no longer make those decisions on your own.

Why this is so important

It’s beyond sad to see elderly people with no quality of life subjected to advanced resuscitative efforts as they near death. Breast bones and ribs can be painfully cracked with vigorous CPR efforts. People who never intended to wind up on ventilators can linger for weeks, months or even years while machines regulate their breathing and tubes carry sustenance to their stomachs.

They end up in such states because they failed to make their intentions known in an advance directive. Without such a document signed and on file with your doctor and health care facility, your doctor and other medical professionals are required to exert all life-saving measures should you slip into a coma or face another medical crisis.

Whom should you appoint in this role?

You might be tempted to appoint your spouse as your health care proxy. After all, this is the person with whom you share all of life’s biggest decisions. But in some cases, a spouse might not be the best choice in the role of your health care power of attorney.

Some people are like rocks in a crisis. They are steady and dependable and can be counted on to make sober and timely decisions when their intimate partner’s or spouse’s life hangs in the balance. Others, however, tend to fall apart in a crisis and would be undone by having to make lightning fast decisions about their spouse’s life or death. Not only would these folks be unable to handle their duties as health care proxies, it would be unkind to force them into such positions knowing how they tend to react in such situations.

Talk to the individual first

Instead of a spouse, you might want to appoint an adult child, grandchild or even a close friend. Ideally, the person you appoint won’t be an heir, so they can’t be accused of making decisions for you that could feather their own nests. But sometimes that is unavoidable when you choose family members.

Discuss with the person you want to appoint the types of life-sustaining actions and protocols that you want to be taken in the event that you become unresponsive. Maybe you’re initially okay with CPR but don’t want to be intubated or fed through a feeding line. Then, commit your decisions to paper, sign it and get it witnessed. That should ensure that your wishes are carried out.

Financial versus health care powers of attorney

You might decide to appoint two different people as your financial and medical powers of attorney. Maybe your daughter is a financial whiz but blanches at the sight of blood. You appoint her as your financial power of attorney and choose your younger sister to make your medical decisions once you are no longer able to do so yourself.

Your living will can be as granular or broad as you decide

Maybe you don’t want to be tube fed but hate the thought of experiencing thirst at the end of your life. You can specify that you want hydration but no tube feedings. You might want to include a clause that you want all pain relief efforts to be made to keep you comfortable even if that means that you die a little faster than you otherwise might.

Maybe you want to donate all viable organs. Include that clause and make sure that you sign the back of your driver’s license allowing for organ donation.

These documents will be the blueprint for the end-of-life care you will receive, so choose wisely.