A durable power of attorney for health care is an important part of disability planning. It is a legal instrument by which you designate an agent to make health care decisions for you in the event that you are unable to do so for yourself. By this means, you are able to appoint as your agent someone who you are confident will carry out your wishes. In the health care power, you can inform your agent of your preferences regarding issues of health care that are important to you, such as home care, life support, and pain management.
Although a health care power does not directly affect your assets, it is still an important estate planning tool. It is a gift to your loved ones that enables them, when faced with difficult decisions, to know that they are carrying out your wishes.
Here are some characteristics you may want to consider when deciding whom to name as the agent in your health care power of attorney:
The ability to engage or draw out busy health care professionals: Communication is essential for gaining information; having a medical background helps with this process but is not essential.
The ability to command attention and respect: A person with this quality is more likely to be included in decision making.
Leadership abilities: A respected leader among family members can instill unity and confidence.
Time to devote to this task: Busy executives or people with many responsibilities are not always capable of devoting the time needed.
Geographical proximity: Having an agent who is not far away is advantageous, but this is not as important as the above characteristics.
Having more than one person acting simultaneously as an agent is not recommended in most cases. It is hard enough to get overburdened medical staff and physicians to spend time explaining options and care alternatives to one person. Forcing them to work with a committee is almost impossible.
It is also important for you to discuss your health care desires with your health care agent before disability occurs. Your agent needs to hear from your lips and see in your eyes that the choices being made are truly your choices and that you believe your health care decisions are a matter of personal dignity and control. Having this knowledge will greatly ease your agent’s burden of making difficult health care decisions.
A will generally has no validity until after you die and it is submitted to, and accepted by, the probate court. This is well after it is needed to provide health care of burial instructions. While your instructions on these subjects will not necessarily be ignored, you are presenting them in a highly unusual form which could impede the very purpose you intended. Also, in some states, there are prescribed forms or witnessing formalities for health care and burial instruction documents that your will may not satisfy. It is better to let the will serve its intended purpose—the appointment of a personal representative and guardian for minors, and the distribution of your property—and have separate, properly drafted documents specifically dealing with health care and burial.