The brother of one of my acquaintances suffered a critical head injury in a car accident a few years ago. After being in a coma for several months, he died. Because he was a widower, it was not clear which family members had the authority to make medical decisions as his next of kin. His children and his parents disagreed on several crucial matters, especially whether to remove him from life support. The resulting conflict added a great deal of pain to what was already a tragic situation for the family.
Some of that conflict could have been avoided if this man had completed a medical power of attorney, designating a family member or some other person to make medical decisions for him if he should become incapacitated.
These documents have become well known in recent years, especially after several high-profile cases made national headlines. If you check into a hospital, you will probably be given a power of attorney form. Many financial planners, myself included, encourage clients to complete such forms.
Unfortunately, many people regard medical powers of attorney in much the same way as they think about wills. They are something for the future, something to do someday, something that is important for the elderly.
True, every elderly person should execute a medical power of attorney. However, the need for these forms certainly is not limited to older people. Consider a few other circumstances where they may be especially important:
1. Couples who live together without being married. This is increasingly common in our society, for many types of couples. If partners are not legally married, however, they are not legally considered next of kin. Even though they may be the most appropriate persons to make medical decisions for each other, partners may be barred from those decisions if they have not been given the necessary authority in writing.
2. Middle-aged adults who are single, divorced, or widowed. If they have adult children, it may prevent conflict and heartache to designate one of those children as the primary power of attorney. This might be a child who lives close by or one who is most familiar with the parent’s wishes. If a single adult has no children, it may be even more important to designate a sibling or close friend to make medical decisions if necessary.
3. Unmarried young adults. College students are often still covered under their parents’ medical insurance. It usually comes as a surprise to both generations to realize that, once the kids turn 18, their parents don’t necessarily have the right to know about their medical conditions or make treatment decisions on their behalf. A medical power of attorney won’t let parents have access to information the young-adult children want to keep private, but it will allow parents to make necessary choices in case of an accident or an incapacitating illness.
Executing a medical power of attorney is not difficult. The requirements vary from state to state, but the forms don’t need to be prepared by an attorney and may not even need to be notarized. You can find forms online, at your public library, at your doctor’s office, or at a local hospital. They are generally straightforward and quite simple to complete. You can designate one person as the primary power of attorney and another person as the secondary.
Once you have completed the form, give copies to your doctor, the person you’ve chosen to make decisions on your behalf, and perhaps your attorney and financial planner. The most important thing to do with a medical power of attorney form, however, is to complete one.