Should I Have a Healthcare Proxy?

The Facts: My daughter told me that I should have a healthcare proxy.

The Question: What is a healthcare proxy and should I have one?

The Answer: A healthcare proxy is a legal document by which competent adults appoint a person to make medical decisions for them in the event they are unable to make those decisions themselves. A healthcare proxy does not become effective unless and until you are no longer able to make healthcare decisions. Although only one person can act as your healthcare agent at a time, in your healthcare proxy you should name an alternate agent in case the first person you name is unavailable.

In a healthcare proxy you may give your agent unlimited authority or you may list the circumstances under which your agent can act. However, if you want your agent to be able to make decisions concerning artificial nutrition and hydration, you must specifically state in your healthcare proxy that your agent has the authority to make decisions about these life prolonging treatments. You must also mention the Health Care Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, in your proxy. Most healthcare proxies prepared prior to 2003 are no longer valid because they lack the required HIPPA language.

Most people assume that healthcare proxies are only used in cases where an elderly patient is unable to make end-of-life medical decisions. However, healthcare agents may also play an important role when a younger patient is temporarily unconscious. Since people of all ages may lose consciousness as a result of a serious illness or injury, I recommend that every adult sign a healthcare proxy to avoid conflict between family members and to insure that their wishes are honored.

This article first appeared in the May 21, 2009 issue of the Times Beacon Newspapers

Linda M. Toga of The Law Offices of Linda M. Toga, PC is an East Setauket, New York attorney with a general law practice focusing on estate planning, real estate, marital planning, small business services and litigation.