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Why you need a health care proxy and how to pick your agent

A health care proxy is a legal document that allows you to choose an alternate decision maker for your health care in case you become unable to make your own medical decisions. Regardless of where you live in the country, having a health care proxy keeps you in control of your medical decisions by making your wishes known to the doctors through your alternate decision maker, called a health care agent. It is especially important in Massachusetts to have this set up because medical instructions left in a living will may not be legally recognized.

Both a health care proxy and power of attorney are common estate planning documents that appoint another to make decisions if you become unable to make your own decisions. However, a health care proxy is different from power of attorney because it only affects medical decisions, whereas a power of attorney affects financial decisions. Because these documents appoint agents to represent you in different ways, it is often a good idea to establish a health care proxy, even if you already have a power of attorney.

There are many factors to consider when determining who your health care agent should be. People typically choose a spouse, adult child, adult sibling or trusted friend.

Whoever you choose should be someone who:

  • You are comfortable enough to share your medical preferences with.
  • You trust to act on your medical preferences, even if their own wishes for you are different.
  • Is assertive enough to advocate on your behalf.
  • Lives close enough to you to perform their responsibilities.
  • Can make decisions in changing situations.

When choosing your health care agent, you must also consider family dynamics. While you do not want to choose any specific person to avoid an argument, there are a couple considerations that can make arguments among family members less likely.

Do not choose more than one health care agent because it can lead to fighting and delayed actions. If you have already selected someone to be your financial agent in a power of attorney, consider the relationship that person has with your potential health care agent. If the two agents end up disagreeing, your financial agent may delay medical payments, which could affect your treatment.

Establishing a health care proxy is an important step in planning for end of life care because you never know what your future holds. Although the future is unknown, a health care proxy allows you some control, through your health care agent, of the medical decisions made for you if you cannot make them yourself.

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