Q: I was recently at CHOMP and I saw a brochure about something called a “health care proxy.” What is it and do I really need one?
A: The short answer is yes. If you are over 18 years old, you need a health care proxy.
Your health care proxy is one half of what is known as an Advance Health Care Directive. The other half of the directive is your living will. The purpose of your Advance Health Care Directive is to help physicians, family members and caregivers understand your preferences in the event you need medical care but are unconscious or mentally incapacitated.
A health care proxy is sometimes referred to as a “durable power of attorney for health care.” With your health care proxy, you grant someone the authority to make medical decisions on your behalf in the event you are unable to do so yourself. It is important that this person understands your desires and has the ability to make difficult, even heart-wrenching decisions. Sometimes your closest family members may be too emotionally involved and may not be the best choice for your proxy. Find someone whom you trust and who will be willing to stand up for your values and desires.
Your living will is a legal statement of your preferences regarding end-of-life medical treatment. It refers specifically to situations in which receiving care may prolong your life for a time, but not receiving it would result in your death. For example, you can specify whether or not health care providers should use life-sustaining technologies such as heart-lung machines, respirators, or other medical equipment to prolong your life. You can also give instructions about the treatment of pain and whether or not you want to be an organ donor.
Advance Care Directives are easy and relatively inexpensive. You can get a free, fill-in-the-blank form from the California Department of Justice website. Go to https://oag.ca.gov/ and search on Advance Health Care Directive to find the link that allows you to download the form. The form comes with clear instructions, but I recommend you consult with an experienced attorney to make sure you have completed it correctly, that it has the proper signatures and that it clearly reflects your intent.
Your question is timely because next week marks 32 years since the death of Karen Ann Quinlan. On June 11, 1985, Karen Ann Quinlan died after lingering for ten years in a persistent vegetative state. In 1975, the 21 year-old lapsed into a coma after mixing alcohol and sedatives. When brain scans made it clear she would never recover, her parents fought a high profile legal battle to remove her from her ventilator, a battle they eventually won in the New Jersey Supreme Court.
Karen Ann Quinlan’s tragic case rocked the world of medical ethics and gave rise to a new understanding of how end of life care, personal privacy and medical ethics intersect. In fact, many of the legal protections we now enjoy regarding end of life care stem directly from the Karen Ann Quinlan case. Your Advance Health Care Directive, including your health care proxy, is an important part of these protections.
Steven C. MerrellMBA, CFP®, AIF® is a Partner at Monterey Private Wealth, Inc., a Wealth Management Firm in Monterey. He welcomes questions that you may have concerning investments, taxes, retirement, or estate planning. You can contact Steve by calling 831-372-3426 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.