Many people understand that they can use their estate plan to make known what they would like to happen after they die. However, people often do not realize that they can also plan what they would like to happen if they become incapacitated.

When planning for incapacitation, one area of concern may be medical decisions. Fortunately, you can plan who will make medical decisions if you become unable to make them yourself.

Medical power of attorney

A medical power of attorney is a document that allows you to choose someone, called a representative or agent, to make medical decisions on your behalf. Some of these decisions may include consenting to, refusing or withdrawing a treatment, although you also can limit the powers of your representative.

Your representative must make medical decisions based on your wishes, not what he or she wishes for you. However, it can sometimes be difficult for close family members to refuse or withdraw life-sustaining treatment, even when that is what the principal wants. This is why it is important to take great care to choose a representative you trust to make decisions as you would. It is also valuable to take the time to talk with him or her about your wishes for or against certain treatments.

What happens without a medical power of attorney?

You must be competent to sign a medical power of attorney. If you become incompetent and you have not designated a representative, it may be appropriate for a loved one to apply for guardianship over you.

However, if you become incompetent and you do not have a representative or a guardian, your attending physician could work with one or more of your loved ones to make medical decisions for you. This could lead to arguments between loved ones who disagree on the treatment you should receive. This and other problems could also cause a delay in decisions being made and a delay appropriate treatment.

The way you plan for the possibility of incompetence is entirely up to you. However, a medical power of attorney is one document that can help ensure you receive only the medical treatment you want, even when you are unable to express your wishes.