Do You Have Legal Authority to Make Decisions?

Caregivers should be familiar with the legal documents that give someone authority to make decisions about health, financial and legal affairs, on behalf of another person. These documents serve to protect your loved one’s wishes and can grant authority for you to make certain decisions, as determined by your loved one.

Durable Power of Attorney

A durable power of attorney is a critical document that allows a designated person (also known as the attorney-in-fact) to make legal and financial decisions on someone else’s behalf (also known as the principal).  A durable power of attorney remains in effect even if the principal (your loved one) becomes mentally incompetent (unable to exercise sound judgment).  It is different than a will and it becomes ineffective when the principle dies. The attorney-in-fact must manage and use assets only for the benefit of the principle.

Advance Health Care Directives

Advance health care directives are written instructions about medical treatments and life-sustaining measures that a person wants, or does not want, if he/she becomes incapacitated. These legal documents speak for persons who are not able to speak for themselves in the event of a serious accident or illness.

According to the American Bar Association, state laws vary regarding the appropriate documents to cover these situations. In all fifty states, you can express your wishes for medical treatment in severe illness or injury, and to appoint someone to communicate for you in the events that you can’t communicate for yourself. However, the names of these documents vary depending on the state. You may hear them called “living wills”, “medical directives”, health care proxies” or “advance health care directives”. You can find out more about advanced healthcare directives through your state’s Attorney General’s office or through your doctor. There are also a number of websites, such as Caring Connections, where you can download a state’s specific advance health care directive.

Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare

Because advance directives cannot describe all possible situations, a person may also choose to have a durable power of attorney for health care.  A durable power of attorney for health care allows your loved one to appoint someone (generally known as the health care agent) to make medical decisions about situations that are not included in an advance directive.