A medical power of attorney is a document that names someone you trust to oversee your health care if you become seriously ill and are unable to speak for yourself. In some states you may make up a separate living will to describe your wishes for medical treatment in detail, while in other states the medical power of attorney and living will may be combined in an advanced health care directive document. You'll want to spell out your wishes in detail either in the medical power of attorney or in a living will.

Choosing your proxy

If you are drawing up a medical power of attorney—also known as a durable power of attorney for health care—you need to choose a person who will make medical decisions for you if you become unable to do so. This person is known in various states as a health care proxy, surrogate, or attorney-in-fact for health care. This person can't be your doctor or other health care provider. Choose someone you trust who you feel understands your attitude toward medical care and will carry out your wishes.

Creating a medical power of attorney

It is not difficult to draw up a medical power of attorney: many online resources are available that offer forms. If you don't understand some elements of the form, you may want to have an attorney explain it to you, but it isn't necessary to hire an attorney to draw up the document.

If you have a medical power of attorney, it is known as a "durable" power of attorney. It will remain in effect even if you become seriously ill and unable to answer questions about your care. If you wish to change it or appoint a different person as your proxy, you can't alter your medical power of attorney. You will need to create a new document that will supersede the old.

If you don't have a medical power of attorney

If you choose not to have a medical power of attorney and suddenly become ill, medical decisions may be made by your family members, who may be under emotional stress due to your illness. Decisions may also be made by your doctor or, in some cases, by judges.

These people may not know you very well and may not know what medical treatment you would want to have, or want to refuse. If you have not appointed someone you trust who understands your wishes, you can't be sure your medical treatment will be handled the way you would like.

Additional resources:

U.S. Legal: Health Care Forms by State

Related Legal Guides:

Power of Attorney

Durable Power of Attorney

Health Care Proxy

Financial Power of Attorney