Medical Power of Attorney

A power of attorney is an agreement that gives one person the legal authority to make decisions or perform certain acts on behalf of another. If a power of attorney is created specifically for medical or health care decisions, then it is called a medical power of attorney.

Medical Power of Attorney: The Basics

Also called health care power of attorney, power of attorney for health care or health care proxy, a medical power of attorney is an agreement created by one person (called the "principal") that gives another person (called the "agent") legal authority to make medical decisions should the principal lose the ability to communicate or make those decisions on his own. The agent  (sometimes called your attorney-in-fact or patient advocate) can be a trusted family member, friend, spouse, or even an attorney. Depending on the state, certain persons or entities are not allowed to be agents. For example, in most states, medical providers and employees of medical providers cannot be named agents.

Who Needs a Medical Power of Attorney?

A medical power of attorney may be drafted when an individual has a chronic or foreseeable illness. Although not common, an individual may create a health care power of attorney when they marry or even as a security measure. Regardless of whether the document was created for current health reasons or out of love, a medical power of attorney goes into effect if the principal becomes mentally incompetent, unconscious, or is otherwise unable to make decisions about health care.

When Does a Medical Power of Attorney Take Effect?

A medical power of attorney may stipulate that it will only become effective after the principal’s doctor has determined that the principal is incapacitated or unable to make (or speak) his own medical decisions. The principal may also have the legal right to specify what measures should be taken should he or she become comatose or vegetative. This means the principal can pre-specify whether or not he would like to be kept on life-support or undergo any other life-sustaining procedures.

If the principal becomes ill but is still able to make his or her own health care decisions, then he/she still has the right to give medical directions to doctors, nurses, and other health care providers. It is only after the principal is unable to give directions, or withdraw or withhold consent regarding medical care that a medical power of attorney goes into effect. As such, the agent is still bound by law to make decisions in accordance with the stipulations of the agreement.

Medical Power of Attorney: Making It Official

In general, a medical power of attorney becomes valid after it has been agreed upon by both parties and signed in front of a notary. The principal does not have to file the power of attorney with a government agency. However, in order for the power of attorney to be valid, it may take more than a set of signatures to make it so. In many cases, a physician may be asked to attest to the principal’s mental competence at the time of signing. The physician may be asked to certify, in writing, that the principal fully understands the contents of the document and any repercussions associated with signing it.