As the coronavirus continues to disrupt daily life and leave Americans uncertain of the future, you don’t have to feel helpless during this pandemic. In fact, now is a great time to be proactive and plan ahead should you or a loved one fall ill. One of the most important and relatively easy things you can do (and should do) is to select a health care agent and set up your Health Care Power of Attorney.
What Is a health care agent?
A health care agent (also called a medical agent, health care surrogate, a healthcare proxy, or a medical proxy) is a person you authorize in a medical power of attorney to make decisions about your medical care if you are too ill to make them yourself or are otherwise unable to communicate your wishes.
Why is it important to choose a health care agent now?
As of April 13, there are 586,866 total cases of coronavirus. Of those, only a small percentage are in critical condition. So even someone gets sick, they will most likely have mild symptoms and recover quickly. However, since no one knows exactly how they will be affected by the virus, it’s best to plan for the worst and hope for the best. Part of that planning is making sure someone can make medical decisions for you if you fall ill and are unable to make those decisions for yourself.
Factors to Consider in Choosing Your Health Care Agent
A health care agent is an important role, and the person you choose will have the power to make critical medical decisions—like consenting to a treatment plan, whether to accept or refuse medical treatment, and which health care providers or hospitals to use for your care. As a result, it is crucial to think carefully about who you choose to fill this role. Many people simply assume that their spouse or their oldest child should take on this role, but they are not always the best suited. Here are some factors to consider when selecting an agent:
1) Emotional maturity. People handle stress differently, and not everyone is able to set aside their emotions and make level-headed decisions when someone they love is suffering. In addition, some people are simply not assertive enough to act as a strong advocate in the face of differing opinions of other family members – or even medical providers – who suggest a treatment plan you have informed your health care agent you do not want. You should choose someone who is able to think rationally in emotionally difficult circumstances, even if that means you must look outside of your family to find the best person for the job.
2) Location. The person you choose to act as your health care agent should be someone who lives close by and is able to act on your behalf very quickly in the event of a medical emergency or if you need your advocate to serve in that role for an extended time period. In current times, many people might be under a mandatory or recommended stay-at-home order, or may not be available or willing to travel to another city or state. Consider naming several alternate agents to account for someone’s potential unavailability.
3) Is willing/able to serve. Acting as a health care agent can be a time-consuming and emotionally draining job. Make sure that the person you choose is willing and able to set aside the time necessary to serve as your patient advocate. Don’t just assume the person you want to be your health care agent is willing: Be proactive and ask if he or she is willing to take on that role. Keep in mind that if you are a senior, you may want to avoid naming a friend or family member who is also a senior, as there is a greater chance that they will experience mental or physical decline at the same time as you, which could impede their ability to serve as your advocate when the time comes.
4) Will honor your wishes no matter what. Your health care agent has a duty to make medical decisions on your behalf that you would have made to the extent that he or she is aware of your wishes. This is the case even if your health care agent disagrees with your choices. As a result, your health care agent needs to be someone who is willing to set aside his or her own opinions and wishes to carry out yours. It may be prudent to appoint someone who has values and religious beliefs that are similar to yours to reduce the instances in which your agent’s opinions differ significantly from yours. Do not choose anyone that you do not trust to carry out your wishes.
People You Should Not Choose
Many states have laws prohibiting certain people from acting as your health care agent, even if they are otherwise well-qualified to act in that role:
1) Minors. In Arizona, a minor cannot be a patient advocate. The age of majority is 18 in Arizona.
2) People who are difficult to reach. Some people because of their jobs or living situations are hard to reach. We always recommend that you pick someone who will be able to be reached in an emergency.
3) Your medical providers. Some states prohibit your medical providers from acting as your health care agent. It’s best to let your health care providers maintain their role as care providers and name someone else to be your health care agent. One thing to note is that the person who witnesses or notarizes your health care power of attorney cannot be one of your medical providers.
Health care directives may be among the most important legal documents you prepare – especially in light of COVID-19. Picking a health care agent can be tricky and we can help you think through your choice. We can also help with any other estate planning needs you may have—whether that’s setting up a Financial Power of Attorney, Last Will and Testament, or a Trust. Please give us a call today at 480-699-7992 to discuss how we can help you and your family be prepared should you fall ill from the coronavirus.