It's rarely an easy conversation, but it is a necessary one: Who will take care of your parents in the event that they can no longer take care of themselves? If you have aging parents, they likely have their estate planning documents in order (and if they don't, it's imperative they get that done, stat). An important part of this process that's often overlooked, though? Appointing a health care power of attorney.
Also known as medical power of attorney or health care proxy, a health care power of attorney allows your parents to choose someone to make medical decisions for them if they become incapacitated. The document covering this appointment is different from a living will; a living will allows a person to outline their wishes if they can't communicate them (like if they want to be resuscitated in the event of a coma, for example). Choosing a medical proxy, on the other hand, allows those wishes to be carried out on a person's behalf. A health care POA document is also not the same as a last will and testament (which goes into effect after a person's death) and does not deal with wealth distribution.
Appointing a medical power of attorney is an essential step for aging parents, making things easier for you and your family in a difficult situation. Here are all the reasons choosing a health care POA is so important.
Choosing a medical proxy offers control and peace of mind
When your parents appoint a medical power of attorney, they are giving someone the legal right to make medical decisions on their behalf if they are unable to. In appointing a health care proxy, your parents are able to control what decisions can be made and who has the authority to carry them out.
"Adult children should make sure that their parents have completed health care power of attorney, nominating at least a first choice and an alternate," Mary Kate D'Souza, co-founder and chief legal officer at digital estate planning platform Gentreo, tells Health.
Having your parents select an alternate is crucial. "For example, if your father appointed your mother and she had dementia, she would not be able to serve as his health care agent. But if your father nominated you as an alternate, you could make health care decisions for him without court involvement," explains D'Souza.
Without a medical power of attorney, your may need to go to court to get approval to make these decisions—which can be a tedious and costly process during an already stressful time. "It is an opportunity to express in a legally enforceable document your medical care wishes," adds D'Souza.
If no one is appointed, the hospital will either make decisions on your behalf or select someone themselves
If your parents don't choose medical proxies and become incapacitated, the hospital may step in as well, depending on the situation. "The hospital may do one of two things: make certain treatment decisions for you, [or] select a family member to make decisions for you based on the default rules—and it may not be someone that you would have selected," San Antonio-based estate planning attorney Ryan Reiffert tells Health. Needless to say, this can be stressful if the person appointed is not up to the task, not responsible, or just not someone your parent would have chosen.
"When you hold health care power of attorney, this eliminates a lot of unnecessary drama, and typically parents tend to give the child they feel will make decisions in their best interest their HPOA," Christina Steinorth-Powell, a licensed marriage and family therapist, tells Health. "The last thing you want to be doing when an elderly parent needs care is arguing with a sibling who feels they need to be in control."
Having a health care power of attorney selected ahead of time ensures your parents have agency over who has the authority to make these decisions, and it makes things easier for you and your family in the event of an emergency.
It is important to discuss the matter with your parents, set up the documents, and keep them up to date
Visit an estate planning attorney to make sure the health care proxy documents are legally sound and comply with your state's laws. "You can set this document up with your estate planning attorney or find the form through your state's local bar association," Shelly Bailey, certified financial planner and certified trust and fiduciary advisor at Truepoint Wealth Counsel in Cincinnati, tells Health. "Every state has its own specific form which will need to be signed and notarized."
She suggests parents discuss the role with the people they are planning to appoint to confirm that they are willing to act on their behalf. Bailey also suggests updating these documents if any changes occur, such as a move to a different state, since the forms are state-specific. "Submit your form to your health care facility or doctor's office so that they already have it on file should you need to use your agent to act on your behalf," advises Bailey.
RELATED: Why You Need A Living Will
Overall, a health care power of attorney appointment and document "act as a plan made with clear minds that everyone understood at the time," New York City attorney Andrew Rozo tells Health. "It cannot prevent tragedy, but it can be a great aid in that journey."
Encourage your family to have conversations about choosing a medical power of attorney so that everything is in place should you ever need it; it can save you and your family immense unnecessary emotional and financial stress.
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