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What Is a Health Care Power of Attorney?

Written by: FindLaw Staff , Contributing Author
Reviewed by: Jordan Walker, J.D. , Legal Writer
Last updated March 11, 2024

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A health care power of attorney (health care POA) is a legal document that allows you to designate a trusted person to make end-of-life medical decisions for you in the event you are unable to communicate your own health care decisions. This person is sometimes called your health care proxy, health care agent, health care surrogate, or attorney-in-fact.

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Planning for End-Of-Life Health Care

Planning for your medical care with a health care power of attorney is a good idea for everyone because it helps to ensure that your treatment preferences are honored if you are ever unable to make or communicate decisions due to incapacity. Without a plan in place, you may be subjected to unwanted medical treatments, including ones that are against your philosophical and/or religious views. Also, this can often cause conflicts and strained relationships between your family members and loved ones as you lie in a hospital bed.

This article discusses how a health care power of attorney fits into your estate plan and the types of medical decisions your health care agent can make on your behalf.

Living Will vs. Health Care Power of Attorney

Both a living will and health care power of attorney are types of legal documents used to plan for end-of-life health care. They are also sometimes referred to interchangeably as a “health care directive,” “advance health care directive,” “medical power of attorney,” “declaration regarding life-sustaining treatment,” “durable power of attorney for health care,” or some other similar term. It’s common to combine a living will and health care power of attorney to create a two-part health care directive containing a:

  • Living will stating instructions for medical care
  • Health care power of attorney designating a health care agent

There may be differences between a living will and a health care power of attorney according to your state law. Generally, these two documents work together in your estate plan. Sound confusing? Our state-specific health care directive and living will forms automatically generate the health care planning forms used in your state and include simple instructions to sign and finalize your documents.

What Is a Living Will?

living will is a legal document that allows you to state your desires for end-of-life medical care if you are unable to make decisions for yourself. You can use this document to state your preferences for life-sustaining treatment, artificial nutrition and hydration, organ donation, do not resuscitate (DNR), and other health care decisions. The instructions you provide in a living will guide your family members, doctors, and other health care providers if you are in a coma, seriously injured, terminally ill, have dementia, or are otherwise near the end of your life and unable to make or communicate decisions.

What Is a Health Care POA?

As stated above, a health care power of attorney is a legal document that lets you grant another person (your health care agent) the legal authority to make medical treatment decisions on your behalf if you are unable to do so yourself. Typically, this is when your attending physician determines that you are incapacitated. Depending on where you live, a health care agent may also be known as a health care proxy, health care representative, health care surrogate, attorney in fact, or something similar.

In this document, you can provide specific instructions for your health care agent and limit their authority if there are decisions you do not want your agent to make. In most states, if you choose not to limit your health care agent’s authority, they can make any medical decision on your behalf that you could make for yourself.

Note that a health care power of attorney is not a financial power of attorney. The person you choose as your health care agent is only authorized to make medical decisions for you. A financial power of attorney appoints someone to handle your money, property, and other financial affairs if you are unable to do so. If you want to designate one person to make your medical treatment decisions, and another to handle your finances in the event you are unable to do so, consider using DIY forms to add both a health care power of attorney and a financial power of attorney to your estate plan.

What Can My Health Care Agent Do?

Your health care agent has access to your medical records and other health care information. Usually, a health care agent’s powers include authority to make decisions about:

  • Medication and medical treatments you do or do not want to receive
  • Providing and withholding or withdrawing life-sustaining interventions
  • Pain relief and comfort care
  • Mental health treatment
  • Admission to and discharge from health care facilities, including nursing homes
  • Attending physicians and other health care providers
  • Visitation
  • Anatomical Gifts

You may want to provide your health care agent with specific instructions and other information about what you want or do not want. This can help your agent feel like they are making medical decisions for you in good faith and in accordance with your wishes.

How Do I Make a Valid Health Care Power of Attorney?

You should finalize and sign your health care planning documents according to the requirements in your state. This helps to ensure your doctor, medical providers, and anyone else making decisions on your behalf can follow your health care instructions and carry out your wishes. States may have different requirements for filling out and finalizing health care planning forms. This generally means you must be of sound mind when making your health care plan and sign the form in the presence of two qualified witnesses and/or have it certified by a notary public. Additionally, your state may have specific restrictions about who can or cannot act as a witness.

Be sure to research your state’s requirements to ensure you have a valid health care POA. If you’re unsure or nervous, you can use state-specific health care directive and living will documents. The forms used in your state are automatically generated and include simple instructions for signing and finalizing your legal documents. You can also select their last will and testament and financial power of attorney forms to create an estate plan that works for you.

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