Retirement for Seniors

For Busy People-Health Care Power of Attorney | Retirement for Seniors
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For Busy People-Health Care Power of Attorney

Among the many documents you should prepare as you settle into retirement is the health care power of attorney, which designates another person to make medical decisions for you should you become incapacitated. This document, to some degree, can also act as a directive, letting health providers know what kind of medical care you want to receive if you’re unable to communicate with them directly. Primarily, however, the document allows you to designate an agent, and spell out exactly what kinds of decisions you want that agent to make on your behalf.

Choose Your Agent Carefully

Your selection of an agent is critical. Obviously, this should be a person who knows you well and is a person you can trust. However, medical decisions, particularly end-of-life decisions, can be fraught with emotion. It is critical that your health care agent be well aware of your own preferences regarding life-prolonging procedures, and be willing to make hard decisions. It would help if you chose an agent who thinks along the same lines you do on contentious topics such as ethics and religion. Your agent should have the character to act in what you both perceive to be your best interest, even in the face of conflicting opinions of doctors and family members who may have their own ideas. Obviously, at the same time, any decisions your agent makes must be within the law.

Health Care Power of Attorney

To Make Medical Decisions

For these reasons, it’s usually not a good idea to choose a spouse to be your health care agent; even the most level-headed people can come apart at the seams when their spouses become incapacitated. A relative or even an adult child is a better choice, or a trusted colleague or friend. Whomever you choose, discuss the matter at length with your designee before definitively appointing him or her; make sure your designee is willing to accept the responsibility, and discuss your own wishes about how you wish a situation to be managed should you become incapacitated. Don’t surprise anyone with a phone call out of the blue from a doctor saying that you’re on life support and asking for instructions! And always choose an alternate agent in case your principal is unable to act for whatever reason. Your alternate should, of course, have the same qualities as your principal, and let this person know as well that he or she may be called upon.

Because of possible conflict of interest issues, most jurisdictions prohibit you from naming your doctor or other health care provider directly responsible for treating you as your health care agent.

Health Care Power of Attorney Documents

Health care power of attorney documents stick to a fairly specific format, which varies from U.S. state to state. The forms are all downloadable at various websites, but be sure to download the form that’s specific for your state. If you split time between two states, you may need to prepare two documents, one for each state. And be sure that the website where you source the document is legitimate; if you’re unsure, you may want to consult with a lawyer, or an administrator at your local hospital, who will have seen plenty of these forms and will know what’s acceptable.

The forms can be specific with regard to information presented — indicating the level of incapacity required before the document goes into effect (if you can communicate by blinking your eyes, for instance), and whether you wish to limit your agent’s capacity to certain kinds of illnesses, procedures, or situations. You can also state what procedures you want done, or not done, to prolong your life. However, if get specific in this regard, be sure that the information you cite here does not conflict with any information you may provide in an advance health care directive, or “living will” — which is a completely different document directly informing a doctor or health care practitioner whether or not you want them to apply life-prolonging procedures. If you prepare both documents, the health care power of attorney document can simply refer to the living will for specific information, if any.

If you want your document to be specific and detailed, it may be worthwhile getting legal advice. You don’t want your doctor puzzling over the legality of a document at a crucial moment. Get a lawyer who specializes in elder care or health care issues.

Once you’ve prepared your power of attorney, make several copies, get them notarized, and keep them in logical places. A bank safe deposit box and a drawer in your bedroom that other people know about are two logical places; you should also give copies to your agent and file a copy with your local hospital, if appropriate.

When Does This Document Go Into Effect?

The document goes into effect when a doctor declares that you are incapacitated. This usually means, (1), that you are incapable of understanding the nature or consequences of the health care choices that are available to you, and/or (2), that you can’t communicate your own wishes through speech, in writing, or through gestures. A doctor can make this decision without having to clear it through any legal channels, though in borderline cases doctors usually consult with family members and your health care agent before declaring that the power of attorney has become operable. In some states, it’s possible to make the document operable immediately, even with you in perfect health. Your agent will not be able to override any decisions that you continue to make on your own, but he or she will be able to step in at any time, such that a doctor need not make a determination of incapacity.

Revocation Of Your Health Care Power of Attorney Document

You can revoke your health care power of attorney at any time — just make sure your designated agent knows, and retrieve any copies you may have filed at your hospital or elsewhere. Courts can sometimes invalidate health care powers of attorney, if a third party questions its validity and presses a suit or if the document wasn’t properly prepared, but such cases are rare. A court can also revoke your agent’s authority to act on your behalf — but, again, a concerned third party would need to bring a suit arguing that your agent is acting improperly. If the suit is successful, the agency would then pass on to any alternates you may have named. If there are none, then a conservator or guardian will be appointed by the court to make your health care decisions. Again: choose your agent carefully!

You may not need a health care power of attorney. Especially if you have a living will, a doctor will work with that document, his or her own experience, and input from family members to see your case through. However, having a designated health care agent can be especially helpful in a long or complex period of incapacity, and you will make life easier for everyone involved if you name an agent.

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