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What's the role of a health care agent and how do you choose one?

There are two very important things no estate plan should be without: the designation of someone to be your agent for health care (also known as the person who holds your medical power of attorney) and your living will.

Living wills are provided free by hospitals everywhere these days -- they function as a legal guide that allows the doctor, or other relatives, to follow your wishes regarding medical care once you can no longer express them on your own.

However, your personal agent is there to step in and make health care decisions on your behalf if the living will is either not in existence, incomplete or simply doesn't cover the situation.

Living wills can be broadly written or they can get down to specifics, like exactly what pain medication you want in your final hours when you are placed on comfort care. However, the agent's role is still vital -- because there's no possible way to cover every event that can happen during a crisis.

For example, what if you ask for morphine only during your comfort care but develop an allergy to morphine? As long as your agent is there, he or she can choose the substitute drug that can be used to keep you pain-free during your last hours.

Your agent can also step in if you're only temporarily incapacitated. For example, if you're put into a medically induced coma while a staph infection is brought under control, your agent can make the decision about whether or not to try to debride the infected area before going to more extreme methods (like amputation).

When choosing your health care agent, consider the following factors:

  • Don't make the person who has your financial power of attorney your agent for health care purposes. That can create a conflict of interest.
  • Make certain that the person you select is healthy and likely to outlive you.
  • Make certain that the person you select is capable of handling the drama, family dynamics and inevitable power struggles that happen during medical emergencies.
  • Choose someone who will be firm and confident with the staff and doctors as well.
  • Choose someone whose moral and spiritual beliefs about the body and death are in agreement with yours.

An attorney experienced in estate planning can provide you with estate planning advice, so you know your wishes will be carried out, even if you are incapacitated.

Source: FindLaw, "Selecting Your Health Care Agent," accessed Aug. 24, 2017

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