Secure Your Wishes with a Health Care Proxy

Secure Your Wishes with a Health Care Proxy by Thomas Sciacca

{Read in 8 minutes} What is the best kept secret about a Health Care Proxy? It’s absolutely free and you don’t need a lawyer to do it.

A Health Care Proxy may be one of the most important legal documents that you ever sign, yet many people do not know what it is. Basically, it’s a statement a person can sign appointing someone else to make his or her medical decision for them if there were ever to come a time when that person cannot make a medical decision on their own.

First, you should consider clicking here. This is New York State Department of Health’s website, where the Health Care Proxy form is available as a fill-in-the-blank document in several different languages. This is something that you can complete simply by following the instructions provided on the website.

Important Things to Consider

  • You will need to decide on which person in your life is going to make these decisions on your behalf if you are unable to speak for yourself. For example, I might not be able to have meaningful communication with my doctors because I am in a coma after a car accident, or I may not be able to meaningfully communicate with my doctors because I’m suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and I’m simply incapable of understanding the nature of our communication.

    The person whom I am appointing needs to be able to make very important, or very minor, decisions in both of these examples. If I am in a coma, this person may be faced with a “pull-the-plug” type of decision, such as whether or not my doctors should use artificial means to keep me alive. If I am suffering from dementia, this person can do something relatively minor, like sign off on a necessary root canal surgery with my dentist. The person can be anyone that you wish so long as they are over 18 years of age and not your primary care physician.
  • If you have multiple people that you would like to appoint, you may do so. However, you can only appoint them to serve one at a time. For example, if I have two siblings or if I have two adult children and I wish to name both of them as my agents, I need to pick one of them to serve as the primary agent and the other to serve as an alternate agent—who would only have the authority to make decisions if the first person that I had selected was unable or unwilling to act. The goal here is to have only one individual at a time with the legal authority to make a decision; your agents can always consult with each other or with other loved ones for guidance on making that decision.
  • Who is the most appropriate person? The person who I trust the most but is not geographically close to me, or someone who is very close by (but I would prefer to name them as a second choice)? You can actually have a combination of both. Perhaps you wish to name the nearby person as your primary agent, because they would be able to show up at the emergency room in case of an accident relatively quickly.

    Your secondary agent, if they come to New York to see you from wherever they happen to live, would be in a situation to take over simply by having your primary agent deferring to the alternate agent. The two of them can work together, and the primary agent can always resign if they want to permanently defer to the alternate agent.

All that one needs to do to sign this is to fill out the form, which is available on the website above, follow the instructions, and have two disinterested witnesses sign the document. A disinterested witness means that they are not named as agents.

Example: I name my brother as my primary agent and my sister as my alternate agent. Neither of them can serve as witnesses.

  • Do I really need this document? Can’t my loved ones automatically make these decisions? The answer is: perhaps. For example, New York law will provide certain spouses, domestic partners, or blood relatives with the right to make certain medical decisions as a matter of law. However, there are situations where the people who we want to make these decisions are not within these parameters, or not in the order that we would like.

    For example, maybe I do not have a relationship with my family. By signing the Health Care Proxy, I can override their statutory rights to make medical decisions for me and have someone of my own choosing make that medical decision for me. This is also important for people who are married and they have different last names. A question at the hospital by an administrator asking you to produce a marriage certificate may be quite burdensome, whereas if you have a Health Care Proxy, you have the authority to act simply by virtue of the legal document.
  • Health Care Proxies are also very helpful for LGBT couples who are traveling—either to red states or to countries that are less hospitable to people in the LGBT community, and may not recognize their relationship or their marriage. Having legal documents allowing one member of the couple to make a medical decision for the other, irrespective of their marriage, can be very helpful, often avoiding the need to involve the media or the Courts to make basic medical decisions.
  • Once you sign this document, you should not keep it private. In order for you to get any use out of it, you need to make sure that people can find it when the need arises. I always tell people that you should keep the original among your important papers, and you should give copies of it to the agents. You should also give a copy to your primary care physician. If I were ever to be in an accident and the paramedics peeled me off the sidewalk, they would take me to the hospital. The hospital would go through my wallet looking for my identification but also for my medical insurance card. When they find my medical insurance card, they’ll find out who my primary care physician is, and my physician can send it over to the hospital very simply and add it to my record.

Therefore, I strongly encourage everyone to consider spending a few minutes looking at this link. Schedule a time to do it. It may be the best and most important legal document that you ever sign. It won’t cost you a nickel, and it will give you a lot of peace of mind without too much work at all.

Thomas Sciacca

Thomas Sciacca
(212) 495-0317