What is a Medical Power of Attorney?

What is a Medical Power of Attorney?

Having a medical power of attorney, in addition to a living will, can help guarantee you receive the medical treatment you need if you are incapable of making or communicating your medical treatment decisions. Combined, these documents are frequently called advance directive documents.

What Is a Medical Power of Attorney?

A medical power of attorney (typically known as a health care power of attorney or durable power of attorney for health care) is a legally binding document that permits someone you trust (usually called an agent, surrogate or attorney-in-fact) to make medical choices on your behalf. The agent only has this authority if it is ascertained by your doctor that you are incapable of making those types of decisions, or you cannot communicate your wishes, if you’re in a coma, for example.

With a health care power of attorney medical choices can be made in accordance with your beliefs and wishes in the event that you are incapacitated. Legally appointing a trusted friend or family member to speak on your behalf will help guarantee your desires are carried out.

The Difference From a Living Will

A living will (commonly called an advance directive, health care directive, or advanced medical directive) conveys your wishes regarding medical treatment in very specific circumstances. It’s more restricted than a health care power of attorney. A living will doesn’t appoint anyone to make decisions for you and is only applicable if you are in a terminal condition, or in a permanently unconscious state. A couple of states also allows a living will to come into play when “the burdens of treatment outweigh the expected benefits.” As a result, if you are momentarily incapacitated but are predicted to recover from an injury or illness, a living will does not come into play and will not allow someone to make treatment decisions on your behalf. Only a medical power of attorney would help under these circumstances.

A medical power of attorney and a living will may be combined into a single document or can be individual documents.

Health Care Power of Attorney

The health care power of attorney is a legal document in which you designate someone to be your representative, or agent, in the event you are unable to communicate or make decisions about the aspects of your health care. In the simplest form, a health care power of attorney merely states, “I trust this person to make decisions about my health care if I am unable to make them myself.”

A healthcare agent is a person that you are trusting to make medical decisions on your behalf if you can’t make them for yourself. Deciding on who is going to be your agent is an important decision, and you should think carefully about who you want to take on this responsibility. This person might one day be deciding if life support measures will be in your best interests or deciding just how your personal and religious values may impact other types of treatments. The legal document that designates a healthcare agent is sometimes called a “healthcare power of attorney.”

A health care power of attorney goes beyond a living will. The biggest restriction with a living will is that it only applies if you are terminally ill, permanently unconscious or other similar conditions as defined by state law. If you are temporarily unconscious or cannot communicate, but are not terminally ill, in a coma, or other final condition, a living will is going to be of no use. You need a health care power of attorney to cover such a circumstance.

Usually, people choose to have a separate living will to give your agent some direction or incorporate living will requirements in the health care power of attorney. A health care power of attorney can be as extensive as possible, or it can restrict the types of decisions the person can make. If you don’t have a living will, or do not make any type of statements in your health care power of attorney about your wishes, it will be up to the person you appoint to determine what you would want in a certain situation. It can be a huge help to your agent if you also have a living will or living will requirements in the power of attorney to produce some guidance as to what you would like.


  1. “Healthcare Power of Attorney.” Legalzoom.com, 28 Oct. 2016, www.legalzoom.com/knowledge/living-will/topic/health-care-power-of-attorney.
  2. “Resources Categories COAACH.” COAACH, www.coaachhealth.org/publications-category/resources/.
  3. “Sample Healthcare Power of Attorney.” COAACH, www.coaachhealth.org/publications/sample-healthcare-power-of-attorney/.

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